Undertaker’s Last Rite

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Undertaker’s Last Rite

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

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very day of his life, for the past 28 years Mark Callaway, has been playing the lead role in a story that unfolds in real time.

A lifelong fan knows that wrestling has always been a medium for storytellers. The heart of pro-wrestling exists somewhere between the visceral thrill of watching an athletic contest and the emotional catharsis that accompanies a motion picture. An observer becomes a fan, or “mark”, when there is a “moment of pop”; when they find nuance in a reversed suplex or a long, painful submission hold. When the story reaches its climax, the 1-2-3 count in the centre of the ring, is when the moment of pop occurs. That the outcome was predetermined is irrelevant – the fans are reacting to how the story made them feel.

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I started watching wrestling in the mid ’90s, after Hulkamania had passed. In ’93, a strange new wrestler made his debut. Stoic and inexorable, he drew his powers from a funerary urn carried by his eerie manager, Paul Bearer, and even being buried alive didn’t stop him.

I marked out bad and believed all the hype. His all-black attire and unblinking stare was the perfect counterbalance to the cartoonish, OTT characters of mid-’90s WWF like Yokozuna and Ultimate Warrior.

’Taker earned his place in the pantheon of legends by constant reinvention. Sensing a change in the tide of audience sentiment, who refused to accept ludicrous storylines, he took time off to recover from injury and came back at the dawn of the new millennium in a brand-new avatar. Enter the American Bad Ass, a Harley-riding, butt-kicking, gravelly-voiced avatar of The Undertaker. His canny rebranding of his character kept him relevant in a time when wrestling itself was undergoing a change.

One five-star match at a time, he won back my fandom. This time, I was watching wrestling because of the performances.

As I grew older, my interest in wrestling petered out. Like every other smart mark, I passed judgment on wrestling and moved on to UFC, and thought Anderson Silva and Rampage Jackson were the real tough guys. Then one day, in the related videos list on YouTube, I saw a thumbnail that piqued my curiosity. There he stood, back in black, cowboy hat and trench coat in place, with smoke machines and dim purple lights creating an otherworldly atmosphere. The Undertaker himself, back as The Deadman.

I started watching wrestling again solely to see how this dated character fared in a millennial world. The smark inside me tried finding issues with the return, but grudging admiration soon gave way to hero worship. ’Taker looked visibly older. He’d been around so long that I thought he was immortal, but the reality was writ large across the screen every time he made an appearance.

Still, he hung in there with guys 20 years his junior and made them look like amateurs. One five-star match at a time, he won back my fandom. This time, I was watching wrestling because of the performances. Wrestlers are a curious mix of actor, sportsperson, and bodybuilder, and their unique talents make them far more entertaining than a bland, buzzcut-sporting UFC fighter in black tights.

When the ’Taker’s dream run of staying unbeaten for 21 years at Wrestlemania came to an end in 2014, I was stunned. I knew it was probably scripted, but I couldn’t believe it. When the Deadman’s Streak ended at 21-1, my childhood ended with it. But as I recovered from the fall of an icon, I knew that the spark of my fandom had been rekindled into a fire. Even though I no longer believed that ’Taker was a supernatural being, it dawned on me that this was a real-life superhero. Someone who put their health, family, and home aside to provide the fans with in-ring entertainment. It was performance art of the highest calibre. Childhood comes to an end, but pro-wrestling is for life.

Even though this was your last ride at Wrestlemania, the marks will always seek out the man for whom the bell tolls.

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