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25th Jun 2019

For the love of God, please let The Undertaker retire in peace

Wil Jones

Let him bow out gracefully

In 2017, at the main event of Wrestlemania 33, The Undertaker lost to Roman Reigns.

To end the show, he left his coat, gloves, and hat in the ring, stripping away attire of the Undertaker character, and revealing Mark Calaway, the man underneath. The match was slow and sloppy, and not by any wrestling fan’s standard a good match, but if this was his retirement as the ending suggested, it was a fitting, powerful end to the story.

Here was a once powerful warrior, too proud to quit, refusing to die, but looking like a shadow of his former self. The ending made the match’s errors and clumsy moments seem like great storytelling choices, of a man crumbling apart in his final battle. It was like the ending of a great Western, like The Wild Bunch or Logan or something.

On Monday night, just over two years later, a 54-year-old Undertaker returned to Raw to attack Shane McMahon (who, at the age of 49 himself, has lost his boyish good looks and now resembles a man whose blood vessels have all decided to try and escape his face at the same time), setting up a match at next month’s Extreme Rules. It was the moment that finally destroyed that wonderful Wrestlemania conclusion for good.

Since Wrestlemania 33, WWE has been doing everything it can to rob that finale of its power. For nearly a year, we heard virtually nothing of or from Taker. His retirement was not confirmed, but widely suspected. He made a one-off non-wrestling appearance on the 25th anniversary edition of Raw, which was fine, and felt like it didn’t really count.

Then leading into Wrestlemania 34, John Cena began a storyline where he tried to force himself into a match with Undertaker. Cena engaged in a highly enjoyable stream of nonsense that culminated in him ‘buying’ a front row ticket to Mania himself, and ultimately losing to a returning Taker in three minutes.

Cena vs Taker was the one big Wrestlemania bout that never happened, due to series of injuries and bad luck. It was far from the epic send off twelve months prior, but if he was really retiring, we might as well make that happen first. It was far from the epic it would have been five years earlier, but it was what it was, and it didn’t tarnish anyone’s career.

And then, along came the Saudi General Sports Authority.

WWE’s controversial relationship with Saudi Arabia has been heavily dissected in detail by many, but in brief, the Saudi General Sports Authority has paid the WWE a shit-ton of money to enter into “a 10-year strategic multi-platform partnership” as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 rebranding project, to hold multiple massive televised shows in the country.

In the eyes of many, the WWE is seen as just being paid to produce propaganda for a country that discriminates against women and LGBT people, and has an awful human rights record.

But moral implications aside for a second, it has also resulted in some awful, awful wrestling. 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman appears to be a lapsed WWE fan who is just trying to recreate his childhood by throwing money at various ageing stars to come back and ruin their legacy.

Both Shawn Michaels and Goldberg have taken the easy payday and wrestled on the shows, and there is even an apocryphal story that the Saudi Sport Authority asked for Yokozuna, despite the fact he passed away in 2002 (this was said to be the reason for the appearance of Hiroki Sumi at the Greatest Royal Rumble, a retired sumo with no previous pro-wrestling experience, who, to the uninitiated, may have resembled Yokozuna).

The Undertaker has been an embarrassing centrepiece of these all three of these Saudi events so far. At Crown Jewel, he reunited with Kane to face Triple H and Shawn Michaels in a lumbering contest that saw Kane’s wig and mask fall off at one point.

The nadir (so far) though came at last month’s Super Show Down, where Undertaker took on Goldberg in 1998’s biggest dream match. With a combined age of 106, Taker and Goldberg’s main event crossed the line from laughable to actually being hard to watch, and the two out-of-practice dads risked their safety and repeatedly dropped each other on their heads for nine minutes.

Less embarrassing, more athletic fights have taken place in a Wetherspoons’ car park, and even for the most nostalgic fan it felt like the end of the line.

Yet at least the Saudi shows could be written off as taking place in a different continuity, an Elseworlds tale, a non-canonical spin-off – especially since WWE have been more sheepish about them following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But the moment on Monday night, when Undertaker appeared on Raw, the flagship, self-defined most important show of the company, even in the scripted world of WWE, it was real. And now he is scheduled to team up with Reigns against Shane and Drew McIntyre at the next pay-per-view, in a match no one wants to see.

It is a well-worn cliché that pro wrestlers never know when to stop, and lumber on far past their prime, just to pay the bills, or from their addiction to the roar of the crowd – there have even been whole documentaries made about it. But Mark Calaway doesn’t need the money, and he will always have the fame.

He is old, his hair is receding and he looks like Kelsey Grammer now. No one wants to see his body collapse in the ring. Can we not let the Deadman rest in peace?