November 27, 1991: Thanksgiving Eve in the U.S., a day where most people are beginning their food preparations or, at the very least, were planning what time they had to be wherever they were going for dinner the next day.
Not me. I was a 7 year old who was being kept entertained by a tape of the 1990 Royal Rumble. That day I began my obsession with wrestling which eventually brought me here.
What I didn’t know was at the exact same time that I was watching The Bushwackers and Hulk Hogan, a man who would be a part of my life for the next 25+ years was winning his very first WWF world title.
Over the next two and a half decades, I grew as a wrestling fan as that man, The Undertaker, grew as a character. I sat on my mom’s couch or on my couch or in Section 135 and listened with rapt attention to 30 ever-so-slight variations of the same theme song. He was in the main event of my first WWF house show, beating The Berzerker and Mr. Fuji in a handicap match and no matter what my mom said he would do, he did not walk up to my section just to slap my hand afterwards.
I had all the merchandise: seven action figures, t-shirts, baseball caps, pendants, the Vinyl Pop, the VHS tapes, the DVDs, the DVD re-releases of the VHS tapes and, yes, the Undertaker water bottle. When “Highway To Hell” comes on, I don’t think of the AC/DC music video but rather the SummerSlam ’98 version of it.
As I grew up, so did Undertaker. When I was a kid and needed a superhero to slay the monsters, Undertaker was there to defeat Kamala, Yokozuna, King Kong Bundy, Giant Gonzales, Mabel, and Diesel. During my adolescent years where I began questioning my life choices, so was Undertaker, having his mentor and manager Paul Bearer turn on him.
Plus, while my brother and I went through puberty, fighting constantly and somehow becoming closer because of it, Undertaker was also fighting his brother, Kane, somehow becoming closer because of it.
As I became an angry, moody teenager, Undertaker first went satanic with the Ministry of Darkness and then became the American Bad Ass, riding out on a motorcycle. What is cooler to a moody, almost emo teenager than a devil worshiping bad ass on a motorcycle? He was a heel and still beat all-time popular wrestlers like Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and Hulk Hogan as I continued to cheer him on.
Over time, I shed the moody nature as Undertaker ditched the biker gimmick. I went out and got my first job while Undertaker went out and reverted back to being the Dead Man yet again. Ironically, this is around the time I became the smartass smart mark who was into match quality almost as much as I was into over the top characters. With Undertaker, I got my over the top character and with his matches against the likes of Randy Orton, Kurt Angle, Batista, and Edge I got my high match quality.
Even when I wanted to escape real life and see nutty monster matches, I got Undertaker vs Great Khali, Big Daddy V, Mark Henry, and Heidenreich.
Just when I thought Undertaker couldn’t get any better, I watched him have the greatest match in WrestleMania history with Shawn Michaels. Just when I thought it wasn’t possible for him to do it again, he did it again with Michaels a year later. I saw him legitimately have his gear get set on fire and then take part in an Elimination Chamber match for 30 minutes.
After all that, I finally made it to my first WrestleMania…and my second WrestleMania…and my third, fourth, fifth and sixth. I screamed when Triple H gave him a Tombstone, screamed louder when CM Punk gave him a diving elbow through an announce table, but sat in stunned silence when Brock Lesnar put him down.
Undertaker came back but was not quite the same. He beat Bray Wyatt and Shane McMahon and along the way he avenged his loss with Lesnar. Despite still having this amazing presence and the best entrance in wrestling, it wasn’t the same. Something was missing.
At the same time, I was not the same as a wrestling fan. I no longer got over the top excited just by going to a live show. Dozens of Raws and SmackDowns came to my area, and I had little or no desire to even look at Ticketmaster. I watched WWE during the year, but not with the same enthusiasm I had for New Japan or NXT. Something was missing.
April 2, 2017: For the first time in seven years, I watch WrestleMania from home and for the first time in as long as I can remember, my excitement was purely for the name WrestleMania. For 6 ½ hours, I watch the good, the bad, the strange, the exciting, and the ugly. I yelled at the Network for buffering issues at different points, I scratched my head at some of the booking and I felt bad for the SmackDown women, who had to go out and try to pop a crowd six hours into the show.
Then, just like when I was 7, the gong sounded, The Undertaker was walking to the ring and I sat up. I listened to the 31st ever so slight variation of the same theme song as he strode to the ring to face a different kind of monster. A monster who, like The Undertaker, was a big, bad, moody loner who almost always came through in the clutch.
Father Time has a longer undefeated streak than Undertaker, Goldberg, Tatanka, Crimson, Samoa Joe and Asuka combined. I can do math. I know that if I am 32 and have been watching Undertaker since I was 7, he is also 25 years older than he was that one fateful Thanksgiving Eve.
Every year, we hear the rumblings that this will be Undertaker’s last match and there was certainly plenty of talk about that again this year. Why was John Cena pulled out of this match for Roman Reigns? Why was Jim Ross, a man who “retired” four years ago, brought back for this one match? Why would it go on last, ahead of two world title matches, and the culmination of a three-year long storyline between Triple H and Seth Rollins?
Meanwhile at age 32, I have had a tiring six weeks. My co-worker, already going through personal tragedy and grief, had to take an extended leave of absence. This led to me filling in for almost all of her shifts and a schedule that has led to stretches of me waking up, going to work, coming home, going to bed, waking up and going back to work. Even on days where I could stay up later, I am already dozing off at 10:00 and in bed by 11:00.
So with all that, why did I watch a seven hour, ten minute wrestling show Sunday? Why did I put up with non-stop buffering at times? Why did I watch the entire AJ Styles match on my phone? Why didn’t I throw in the towel when the picture froze as John Cena proposed to Nikki Bella and all I could hear was crowd noise
Because at 11:30 pm, The Undertaker walked onto my television screen one more time and one more time, I sat up. Conventional wisdom said that he would be beaten by this big, bad, moody monster, but I just couldn’t believe that.
I smiled at every twist and turn. When Undertaker turned the 10 Punches Of Doom into the Last Ride, I grinned. When Undertaker chokeslammed his opponent on an announce table and then a steel chair, I clapped. When he kicked out of a spear, I pumped my fist the first time and audibly cheered the second time.
At the same time, when he got backdropped through the announce table, I popped but grimaced. When a steel chair was being bent around his spine, I was telling him to roll out of the way. When his foe kicked out of a Tombstone, I swore out loud. And when he couldn’t sit up, falling over to the side, my heart beat a little quicker as reality began to set in.
I don’t know what the actual time was when Roman Reigns hit his third Spear and pinned the Undertaker, but I can tell you what time it said on my phone when it was broadcast across my television screen,
When midnight struck, the Dead Man fell for the last time.
His opponent, with a look of victory crossed with a little bit of sadness, sauntered up the ramp and out of view. The Undertaker did what he couldn’t do in the match, he sat up, looked right into the camera, through my television set and right at me. He’s never met me and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he is unaware of my existence, but this rollercoaster journey we have both been on, culminated in this one moment.
I am not ashamed to admit that the tears began as Undertaker was standing in the ring, back in his trenchcoat and hat.
I watched him take off his gloves and remove his coat, carefully and respectfully folding it and leaving them in the middle of the ring. I watched him say something to himself, words forever lost into the night’s sky. I watched him take a deep breath, accepting where his life and career have led him, then I watched him remove his hat one final time and set it with everything else.
My heart rate returned to normal as Undertaker walked back up the ramp he came down before descending into darkness. For years, I watched him get buried alive, be locked in caskets, ascend to the heavens, having those caskets he was locked in be set on fire, and I wondered what spectacular special effects display would lead to his last ride.
Ultimately, it was fitting that he just descended into the ground.
As for me, I will still watch Raw next week and Payback next month. I’ll skip a bunch of Raw and SmackDown tv tapings, while occasionally making the trek for a pay per view or for WrestleMania. I’ll go to work and someone will ask me how WrestleMania was and I’ll tell them it was fun. After all, how do you explain to non-wrestling fans the impact one “fake wrestler” can have on your life?
My life continues as normal with one major exception. Who will be the superhero when the next generation of big, scary monsters need to be taken out? Who will be there when I need to hear the 32nd ever-so-slight variation of the same theme song? And who will be there when I need an amazing, one of a kind, spectacle?
It won’t be The Undertaker and with apologies to DDP, that’s not a good thing, that’s a bad thing.