Under the influence

*Image courtesy of AP3.

The first time I saw the Undertaker, I didn’t even actually see him.

I was in sixth grade and had only recently gotten into wrestling, and I hadn’t yet sold my parents on ordering pay-per-view events. But the way it used to work, they’d scramble the visuals and leave the audio intact. So every couple of months, I’d listen to Summerslam or whatever, re-enact it with my action figures and peer at the screen attempting to make out whatever I could. If anything, it heightened the suspense to have to rely on Vince McMahon to shriek about how close two counts were to being pinfalls.

When Ted DiBiase brought out the Undertaker at the Survivor Series in 1990, I listened to his awesome funereal music as my imagination ran wild. The announcers sold him as a larger-than-life demon straight out of hell, simultaneously powerful and graceful, undead and invulnerable. My mind ran wild. Where did he come from? What in the world did he look like?

A week or two later, I saw him on TV and was surprised to find this indefatigable phenom was that Mean Mark guy from WCW, a physical freak for sure, but kind of a scrub in the wrestling hierarchy. And yet my interest remained piqued, since he appeared to have transformed into an invulnerable zombie or something. I got some purple tie-dyed shirt with his logo on it in eighth grade that would have been indefensible, except for that it was an Undertaker shirt.

Not every wack job character the WWE invents works out; fighting garbageman Duke “The Dumpster” Droese comes to mind. (I remain an apologist for the Repo Man.) But Undertaker was just so damn cool. He was either dead or undead, depending on the announce crew. He never, ever smiled. And no matter how much punishment he’d take, he’d pop up like he was rising from the grave. Even when he was supposed to be evil, he was impossible not to love. 

***** 

After they eventually got over the disappointment of apparently having raised a wrestling fan, my parents let me start ordering the occasional pay-per-view. My annual WrestleMania party became the social event of the year for the middle school set, an opportunity for my group of friends to stay up late, eat pizza and let loose.

Even more so than whatever the main event was, the Undertaker match was always held in high esteem. Of particular interest to me was his WrestleMania VIII showdown with Jake “The Snake” Roberts, which spawned from the Undertaker inexplicably demonstrating a conscience when Roberts attempted to blast Elizabeth with a chair. True to form, Undertaker shrugged off multiple DDT’s like they were mosquito bites to improve to 2-0 at WrestleMania.

As the years passed, the Undertaker switched personas a few times, mostly vacillating between various degrees of evil or twisted morality. (I might have been the only person in the universe to fully endorse his much-maligned “Underbiker” phase.) Through it all, though he lost the occasional match, he never fell victim at WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of scripted fighting.

I watched wrestling pretty consistently until I lost touch with it for about four years in my late 20’s. I had taken a job that required me to work mostly nights and weekends, and I was far more focused on getting ahead and making a name for myself than with keeping up with Monday Night Raw.

But sure enough, a few years back, I found myself at a WrestleMania party with all my friends I used to watch with. The Undertaker beat Edge to improve to 16-0. And I was immediately hooked again, this time probably for good. Why fight something I’ve always loved?

*****

Despite the fact that WrestleMania was in my home state this year and a bunch of my old wrestling buddies were going, I couldn’t really put it together to go. The beginning of the baseball season had been wearing me down, and at the end of the day, I really just wanted to come home and spend time with my wife.

When I arrived home from work, an hour late per usual, Montana was sitting outside grilling chickens for dinner. She had ordered WrestleMania and paused it right at the beginning for me. Then she sat with me while I watched, even though she literally couldn’t care less about wrestling, which is probably putting it kindly.

Like clockwork, the Undertaker beat CM Punk to improve to 21-0 at WrestleMania. Which made sense, since what the WWE really sells now at its biggest event is nostalgia, which is honestly what fans crave anyway.

From my first-hand experience two years ago, WrestleMania weekend is much like a comic-con – with basically the same clientele – in which wrestling aficionados of all ages invade like they’re storming the beach at Normandy. There are satellite events all over the general area; I went to one about a mile and a half from my apartment two nights before WrestleMania that featured living action figures like the Rock and Roll Express, Marty Jannetty, Superstar Billy Graham and the immortal Iron Sheik. (I took a picture with New Jack, who was legitimately and gratifyingly terrifying)

The most significant thing about The Streak at this point is what it has come to symbolize to so many people – the spanning of generations for the people who grew up suspending disbelief, and still do. People in my life have come and go, but from a scrambled Survivor Series screen to the high school WrestleMania fiestas, to drinking beer and watching Undertaker crucify Stone Cold in college, all the way to watching WrestleMania 29 while my wife reviewed legal briefs, the constant over the past 25 years has been the Deadman.

Of course, Undertaker is 48 years old, and his creaky body is starting to show it. The past couple of years, he’s wrestled solo just once, for the expressed purpose of extending the streak. (For reasons unknown, he’s wrestled a couple more times on TV in recent weeks, a great bonus.) It’s to his credit as a performer and an athlete that his matches have still been phenomenal. Still, it goes to figure this has to end at some point pretty soon. 

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I thought for a while that they should use their 20-plus-year investment to put over a younger wrestler and make him a legend, but at this point, I can’t think of anyone with the gravitas and heightened skill level to credibly beat the Undertaker at WrestleMania. (Punk probably would have been the closest.)

I have this fantasy that when Undertaker decides he’s done in a year or two, he leaves it relatively open-ended. That he gives a “final farewell… for now,” before disappearing into a thick purple fog. And a few years down the road, a month before WrestleMania 35 or something, the bell chimes and someone like emerging star Dean Ambrose gets a look of sheer terror on his face like, “It can’t be…” 

And you never know, just maybe I can start trying to explain to my future son or daughter what all the fuss is about.

Esoteric

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