The Undertaker Needs to Retire. Right Now.
It’s time to let the Dead Man’s career rest in peace.
Image via Complex Original
This past Monday, after another bloody, brutal confrontation with Brock Lesnar, the Undertaker was slated to appear on Raw. Presumably, he would have addressed SummerSlam’s screwy finish, which blew up Twitter and social media on Sunday night. Fans had assumed that the main event would end with shenanigans—a Sting appearance or a masked Kane interference, perhaps. But no one expected the Undertaker to tap, much less deliver a low blow behind the ref’s back for the win. It cemented what appeared to be a late-career heel turn for the Dead Man, and the fans wanted answers.
Instead, The Undertaker was pulled from his Monday night appearance. Paul Heyman delivered a blistering rant on live TV, while Taker, according to the dirt sheets, flew back to his home in Texas. Reports state that Taker won’t be back until Wrestlemania season. Then, presumably, he’ll fight Brock Lesnar for the third and final time in this ongoing angle.
when we as fans legitimately fear for the life of the performer behind the character, it crosses a line. It’s no longer fun.
But the WWE should forget about it. Just forget about it. It would be better if the Undertaker never came back as an in-ring competitor. It’s time for the man to retire, right now, before WWE Creative destroys his reputation even further, or before he receives a serious injury that he will not recover from. This is not meant as an insult; the Undertaker has figured into the childhoods of at least two generations of wrestling fans; he’s combined spectacle, athleticism, and ring psychology into a frightening, intimidating package. And for 25 years, it’s been a whole lot of fun. Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t anymore.
The heel turn is a terrible idea.
Let’s start with the booking. It mars and complicates Taker’s legacy to start a heel turn this late in the man’s career. With the limited schedule that Taker works, he relies on other people to carry his angles. And to be a believable heel, he has to be in people’s faces on a regular basis, which he won’t be. A heel C.M. Punk did most of the heavy lifting for Taker’s Wrestlemania 29 feud. A heel Paul Heyman carried both Brock and Taker for their Wrestlemania 30 feud. And as the babyface during both of these feuds, Taker had an easy schedule with few scripted lines; all he really had to do was stand there and looked pissed.
But during his Wrestlemania 31 build-up against Bray Wyatt, the Undertaker didn’t show up at all. Bray had to carry the entire angle, alone, with a little help from some pyro effects. And after WrestleMania, where Taker won a match that did nothing to elevate Wyatt, Taker disappeared again, for months, and took all of the feud’s heat and excitement with him. Granted, a part-time babyface Undertaker can slip in and out of the storyline quite easily—nostalgia will always welcome him back with open arms. But a heel Undertaker cannot do this, lest the fans forget why they hated the guy so much to begin with.
Furthermore, the Undertaker is not even being booked as a monster heel, which might have made his silence and absence compelling. Instead he’s being booked as a chickenshit coward. His underhanded tactics are a total break from what we know about the character; even at his most evil, the Undertaker never relied upon low blows to finish a match. And the announcers did little to clear up the confusion. They acknowledged that Taker had cheated, but didn’t condemn him for doing so. The WWE only half-committed to his heel turn, and that’s no way to build suspense or investment in the characters.
In other words: Go hard, or don’t do it at all.
There is not enough time, nor does the Undertaker have the mic skills, to convincingly put this cowardly heel angle over in the waning twilight of his career. It’s not what the fans want, and it’s not what’s “best for business.” Let the fans celebrate his legacy, instead of tying him up in plot twists and BS. The Undertaker deserves to retire as a dignified, elder statesman (or even a monster heel at the worst)—not as a weasel who screws others and cheats to win.
He has nothing to win and everything to lose.
The Undertaker really should have retired after his third Wrestlemania match with Triple H. That was the last time that the Undertaker brutalized his competition in the manner that fans are accustomed to. It was billed as the “End of an Era,” and it should have been. Triple H became a suit, and Taker should have hung up his boots. Instead, he kept wrestling, and it became an inevitability; Vince McMahon finally pulled the trigger and ended The Streak.
It was an unpopular decision. Brock didn’t want to end it. The Undertaker didn’t want to end it. And fans and industry insiders still criticize it, across the board. On his podcast with Vince McMahon, Stone Cold Steve Austin addressed the elephant in the room, and took his former boss to task:
McMahon: No one wants to give back to the business more than The Undertaker, more than Mark Calaway....The one person whose time was there at that moment, who Mark thought, “OK, this is it,” that’d be Brock.
Austin: C’mon dude. You can’t tell me Undertaker made that decision.
McMahon: I made that decision.
And that seems to be the pattern of the past few years. The more the years wear on, the less there is for Taker to do—he’s done it all. And so, to create drama, and because there’s nothing left to spin into storylines, the writers are now cannibalizing and breaking down the foundations of what makes the Undertaker great. For 25 years, the Undertaker has been pushed as an unbeatable, immortal legend. But the broken Streak, and now, this left-field heel turn, reframe him as petty and human. The Undertaker should retire, and not stick around to witness his character’s destruction.
It’s scary to watch The Undertaker wrestle these days, and not in a good way.
The streak-breaking match at Wrestlemania 30 was no classic, 5-star match, worthy of its historical importance. It was a largely plodding affair, and the Undertaker looked rickety and unhealthy the entire time. It was later reported that he had sustained a concussion early in the match, and he was in no shape to continue. And after a beaten Taker limped backstage, he collapsed. Vince rode with him in an ambulance to the hospital, where he stayed the night under observation.
And since then, there’s a been a back-and-forth on social media regarding his condition. “Does he look healthy?” “Does he look sick?” “How much weight has he lost?” “Did he stop dyeing his hair?” This talk only intensified after the WWE confirmed that he would wrestle Bray Wyatt at Wrestlemania 31. Fans scoured his wife’s Instagram to see how he looked. There were even fans who took candid pictures of him and posted them online, where fans dissected his physique. “Is he too skinny?” “Is he too fat?”
How sick and morbid is this? The dialogue around The Undertaker has changed for the worst. Fans have gone from wondering if he can put on another classic to wondering if he can make it to the ring. Instead of celebrating his ability to sell an injury in a match, fans are hoping that he isn’t injured for real. And instead of looking forward to his signature moves, we cheer that he can still manage to do them. This is not fandom. This is a deathwatch. The Undertaker can no longer get over with the crowd when everyone is speculating whether the man behind the character, Mark Calaway, is well enough to compete.
This past SummerSlam was a prime example of diminishing returns. The Undertaker was limping during the match. He was wheezing during the high impact spots. Brock was clearly protecting him—he hit every suplex at an extremely low angle. And when fans commented on Taker’s performance, they always compared it to his recent, more sickly matches, rather than the classic matches from his late prime; the bar for quality has lowered.
And after the match, on his way up the ramp, Taker collapsed again, falling to his knees before rising and walking to the back.
Social media lit up. Was this all part of the show? Was he just selling his fake injuries? Perhaps, even though it did occur off-air. That we even ask these questions, however, demonstrates that the Undertaker should not be out there taking German suplexes to the back of his concussed head. He’s not actually a zombie, ladies and gentlemen—he’s an injured, graying 50-year-old man. We should be cheering his prowess, but instead, we’re praying that he’ll make it through the night in one piece.
the stadium can go dark. Lightning can strike. And when lights come back on, the ring can be empty. Fin.
Wrestlemania 32 would be a perfect curtain call for the Undertaker. It’s in his home state of Texas, and the WWE can induct him into the Hall of Fame the prior night. At the PPV, he can do a full-scale, spectacular entrance, and pose in the ring with his tongue out. If they want him to do his signature moves, they can send Triple H or Paul Heyman out to get squashed. The Undertaker can Tombstone them each 10 times, if the crowd demands it. And then, the stadium can go dark. Lightning can strike. And when lights come back on, the ring can be empty. Fin.
But no more matches for the Undertaker. None. Not at the Survivor Series, not at the Royal Rumble, and certainly not at Wrestlemania. Not Against Brock, not against Sting, and not against Cena. God knows that after Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper’s deaths, the professional wrestling world doesn’t need another tragedy. When that fine line between what is scripted and unscripted, between what hurts and what “hurts” breaks down, it starts being “real.” And when we as fans legitimately fear for the life of the performer behind the character, it crosses a line. It’s no longer fun. Enough is enough.
Kevin Wong has written for Complex Media since 2013. You can follow him on twitter at @kevinjameswong.