The Undertaker: An Industry Anomaly

Just in case it wasn’t already clear, 2020 has certainly cemented The Undertaker as a unique piece of wrestling history. Months removed from his apparent retirement, Undertaker’s final farewell is now days away, taking place at this year’s Survivor Series. Thirty years ago, it was on the Survivor Series stage that Undertaker emerged, introducing a visual that’s since become iconic. For three decades, that character has cast an immense shadow over the WWE landscape. The Undertaker has been a rare constant, irreplaceable through ups and downs.

At this juncture especially though, that’s certainly not news. It’s been quite the send-off for this character, with the performer stepping through the curtain just before it falls. Everyone has had their say, including the man himself. The stories continue to be told, as The Undertaker’s own perspective becomes increasingly common with each passing month. In truth, there’s a bizarre feel to this week’s event, a cynical cloud hanging over its presentation. There’s a disillusionment almost, a surprising emptiness.

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That’s understandable, as The Undertaker has certainly bid farewell before. In 2017, this character received the ultimate send-off, leaving the persona behind as WrestleMania 33 concluded. I can only speak for myself but in many ways, that did and does feel like the end to me. The rest is a rollercoaster in itself, though I’m unsure that any visual will capture The Undertaker as well as that famed shot of his gloves, hat, and coat. That image embodied his legacy, just left without the physical presence to carry it forward.

Based on the match that preceded it though, that retirement was unquestionably overdue even then. In fact, that’s what brought The Undertaker back, as he looked to redeem those efforts after failing to meet his own standards. At times, he achieved that feat too, especially with this year’s cinematic extravaganza opposite AJ Styles. I suppose that in some ways, this really is The Undertaker’s farewell. It’s closure for the man behind this persona, rather than the glossier alternative from a few years ago.

That moment was for us and this one is for him, at its core anyway. It should be noted that even now, some still feel as close to this character as ever and that’s understandable. Clearly, he symbolizes more than just the matches and moments themselves. For the fans that witnessed them, those snapshots represent pieces of their lives. That’s the power of longevity, allowing the audience to truly grow up with you at the center of their escapism.

The Undertaker even stands out from the pack in that regard though, as his career has aged differently. This isn’t a main event act steadily falling down the card, not is it a mere veteran that’s role has evolved. Instead, it’s a singular character, one that as long as he’d step through the ropes, would be a headline attraction. That was only accentuated by his schedule too, as The Undertaker’s full-time career effectively ended a decade ago. Since then, he’s been a special attraction for the grandest stages, even more so than before.

The pressure of that was covered extensively on ‘The Last Ride’ documentary series, as The Undertaker’s career began to live and die with individual match quality. He was in constant pursuit of one last classic, one final masterpiece. Considering where this character started, that’s an incredible thought in itself. For years, The Undertaker sacrificed in-ring thrills for authenticity, portraying a persona that would stroll through matches, occasionally jolting into action with a sudden snap. The Undertaker takes immense pride in that trait and it’s sincere, a genuine example of his commitment.

As he became a part of the industry’s fabric though, the character’s limitations were loosened. That’s best captured by Undertaker’s work in the late 2000’s, stealing shows with regularity as he aged. Physically, The Undertaker’s peak may have came in those years, producing consistent quality in his forties. Those triumphs set a standard though, transitioning the persona to a WrestleMania exclusive with the highest of expectations. That element was never apparent before, but it swiftly became the character’s latest constant.

Reinvention is a major part of The Undertaker’s legacy, but much of that dialogue is purely aesthetic. Clearly, that much is undeniable, as he’s found a collection of looks that’ll live forever. Personally though, I think that one of the more interesting elements of The Undertaker’s character is his stylistic evolution. The core ingredients never really changed much, but his understanding of pacing and structure allowed him to utilize them differently through the years. In that aforementioned era in particular, The Undertaker was a very worthy half of some spectacular battles.

The chapter that followed plays an interesting part in the current perception though. For years now, fans have been steadily distanced from The Undertaker, seeing him only on occasion over the last decade. That makes Sunday less pressing in some ways, as naturally, it’s been some time since The Undertaker was a regular part of any viewer’s life. It speaks volumes that he always felt present though, the human embodiment of the infamous WrestleMania sign that appears every January.

When it came to the grandest stage, no rumor could come and go without The Undertaker. At the height of an era in which the event’s brand sold the tickets, The Undertaker really was WrestleMania. His streak and the matches defending it were the true attraction, the only intangible beyond presentation and promotion. More often than not, that was the main event in its final years, regardless of what went on last. The decision to end the streak will always be polarizing, but that alone captures its impact.

As wins and losses supposedly meant less, the streak only meant more. Frankly, it’s importance to The Undertaker’s legacy is likely understated at this juncture, but the signature matches will only enhance its standing in history. That streak was an anomaly, the ultimate outlier for a star that can only be described with those very terms. The Undertaker is in his own category when it comes to wrestling legends, he belongs in a separate lane. He doesn’t fit any general criteria, he never has.

The promos were striking and eventually, magnificent matches emerged too. That wasn’t what defined The Undertaker though, as he seldom needed either. This character was a case of aura, physical presence that extended beyond even the wildest of plot points. In the broadest sense, The Undertaker was never the number one guy in WWE’s on-screen hierarchy, not for long anyway. That never felt necessary though, because he was almost above that. From very early on, The Undertaker had an importance that stood alone, never requiring the shine of title belts.

That’s why internally, this moment matters. It’s very understandable to be cynical with retirements in wrestling, especially in The Undertaker’s case. That same disenchantment seems increasingly absent within the industry. Though eyes may roll, The Undertaker clearly means a lot to the men and women that he’s shared his career with. That has and will continue to shape his legacy, seemingly symbolizing the wrestler’s view of right and wrong. Even though it seldom made the screen, that trait is persistent throughout every incarnation of The Undertaker.

Every era has experienced that, regardless of their individual interactions in front of the camera. The Undertaker is a special case because to each wrestler, he represents a different image, igniting a different memory. This character puts peers alongside fans, scrolling through their own snapshots as he makes that esteemed entrance. Even the streak has become just another piece of this puzzle, and that was over twenty years of work. It’s just another chapter now, simply a slightly longer one. Your favorite chapter may differ from mine, but we all have one, that’s almost inevitable after producing so many.

Beyond preferences and taste though, there’s a central respect at the root of The Undertaker’s career. Whether it’s contemporaries or viewers, The Undertaker’s presence has been appreciated and valued for three decades, even cherished at times. I find it difficult to sincerely ponder ‘retirement’ for this character as after all these years, what does that even mean? I suppose we’ll find out after Sunday, as The Undertaker persona is finally left behind…in theory of course, for now at least.

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