The Undertaker looks out over the WrestleMania 33 crowd.
When the WWE universe woke up Monday morning still groggy after a terrific (if long) WrestleMania 33 on Sunday night, there was more than a hint of sadness.
The Era of the Undertaker had come to an end.
In the main event of Sunday’s sports entertainment spectacular, the new love-him-or-hate-him face of the company, Roman Reigns, defeated the Undertaker (real name Mark Calaway) in a match that was brutal for long-time fans to watch.
After the fireworks went off and Reigns departed as victor, Taker’s music played. The Dead Man rose one last time, and, in a stunning move, took off his gloves, coat, and hat, leaving them in the center of the ring while his ominous theme played and tens of thousands of fans gave one of pro wrestling’s greatest performers his due.
After more than 26 years as one of WWE’s most prolific and successful wrestlers, it looks like the Undertaker is hanging up the boots. And not a moment too soon.
Anyone who watched last night’s match between Reigns and Taker surely felt a sense of increasing dread as it became clear Taker’s body has completely broken down. While there was only one real botched move, Taker was slow and lumbering, seemingly in pain and unable to perform in the way that’s made him the icon that he is (remember the top rope walk?).
Thankfully, the match go down in history not for what happened during, but for what happened afterward.
There’s something of a tradition in the industry of "going out on your back"—losing to help promote the new, up-and-coming talent. And given how much WWE has been pushing Reigns as its new superstar over the past two years, the Undertaker’s defeat also indicates the proverbial passing of the torch.
Other signs were there, too. Announcing legend Jim "J.R." Ross returned specifically to call this match, and Taker’s wife, former WWE star Michelle McCool, was at ringside. Taker broke character in his exit to show affection.
Taker’s own expression after the match—a mournful, wide-eyed look of raw emotion— seemed to indicate that the icon knew it was over.
Other members of the WWE universe were in on the tributes, too, meaning this probably isn’t "kayfabe" (the wrestling term for the fictional storylines).
While it appears that his in-ring career is over—even WWE got in on the #ThankYouTaker hashtag—the Undertaker won’t fade away entirely. Expect to see his face return at some point in some sort of promotional fashion. After all, a paycheck is a paycheck and WWE has plenty of old stars on retainer for appearances and promotions via its Legends contracts.
In fact, I’d put pretty good money on Undertaker getting top billing at next year’s WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, which happens during WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans next April. That happens to be the same place that Undertaker’s decades-long undefeated streak came to an end during WrestleMania 30 in 2014 at the hands of current WWE Universal Champion, Brock Lesnar.
For now, wrestling fans and workers are still coming to grips with the departure of one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time. Even as the WWE crew dismantled the gigantic set, they left Taker’s clothes alone until the last possible moment.
The show will go on—tonight, actually. It’s time for the Monday Night Raw after WrestleMania, an event that’s become almost as big as WrestleMania itself.
But there’s always room for one last tribute to one of the best.