The Undertaker retires from the WWE: The end of an era, and many childhoods
On Sunday, an era ended. The Undertaker retired from wrestling. There was no official confirmation from the WWE. None was needed. After being beaten at Wrestlemania for only the second time in his storied career, the 50-year-old Mark Calaway, expending the last of his energy, dragged his tired, creaking body upright.
Moving slowly, he collected his gloves, his trenchcoat and hat. And then, like a superhero saying farewell, he folded them and gently placed them in the middle of the ring. It was over.
— Steve Argintaru (@SteveTSN) April 3, 2017
1990 was an eventful year. Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait. The Simpsons premiered on television. The United States entered a recession under George HW Bush, paving the way for Bill Clinton to enter the White House.
Closer to home, India had still not emerged from the hangover of the 80s. Liberalisation under Dr Manmohan Singh was still a year away. And a character named Kane the Undertaker debuted on WWF television.
I was five years old, and therefore blissfully unaware of any of these happenings sans one: And no, I'm not referring to Saddam Hussein ordering the invasion of Kuwait. Growing up, like any other boy, I followed WWF religiously. My friends and I would recreate the moves of our favourite superstars in our bedrooms, hallways and even garages (do not try this at home kids. Seriously!).
We had long, vigorous debates over who the best wrestlers were — I was a huge Bret Hart fan, and looking back, I know why. Everything he did looked real. Felt real. On some level I knew that I was watching a performance, but Bret Hart believed it was real. And thus, he made me want to believe. One of my earliest childhood memories is watching in disbelief as my hero Bret lost to his hated arch rival Shawn Michaels. I was gutted.
Conversely, I never paid much attention to the big men. They were, for the most part, large, lumbering beasts. Physically impressive, but they couldn't do much. Couldn't move like the smaller men (comparatively). Couldn't wrestle like them. The giants bored me silly. Yes, even The Undertaker, who quickly dropped Kane from his name.
I had many problems with the character, which was basically, an undead zombie. Wrestling. The biggest problem was that it made no sense. What did he want? Money? Fame? He was dead. Of what use were they to him? The answer, given to me by my betters was: It's wrestling. Don't worry about it. But I did.
Whenever he turned up on screen, I gritted my teeth. I suffered for years when he wrestled other big men. Spoke in that hokey voice and warned of "grave consequences". The turning point came with the introduction of his brother Kane.
You see, Kane hated the Undertaker. And with good reason: As a teenager, Undertaker had burned down his parents' funeral parlour (with Kane still inside it). Miraculously, Kane survived. And now he was here for his revenge. It was simple. It was understandable. It was literally the oldest story in the book. Brother versus brother. Everyone could relate to that. I was hooked.
He began winning me over. Slowly. Through his athleticism. His dedication to staying in character. Inch by inch. Performance by performance. Until I was an unabashed fan.
But until recently, The Undertaker was never the man. He only briefly held the World Championship, the most coveted honour in the professional wrestling business. The 90s belonged, undoubtedly, to Stone Cold Steve Austin and his bete noire, Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
The legend of the Undertaker was built built by brick, by sacrificing his body on the altar of entertainment. You see, contrary to public perception, the ring isn't a fun place to be. It's unforgiving: Made of wood and steel. The human body wasn't built to crash onto it, night after night. Some wrestlers have likened the feeling of hitting the mat to being hit by a moving car at low speed. Stories of the constant pain that The Undertaker was in after every match abounded. But he did it all: For the fans. You and me.
Meanwhile, I'd began to fall out of touch with wrestling. I grew up. Sure, once a year, around April, I'd check in to see what was happening. And I'd always be gobsmacked to find out that The Undertaker was still around. Still wrestling. Year after year. Until Sunday.
Reading the stories on Twitter made me sad: He was in bad shape. It was a bad match. He looked old. He moved slowly. He looked hurt. And then I saw him wrestle. Which only made me feel infinitely worse. Because it was all true.
And, for the first time in a long time, I was forced to think about the sacrifices that these performers make. Giving up their friends, families and their bodies. How much we owe them.
And long after I switched off the television, I wondered: How is it that we so easily ignore the true cost of what gives us pleasure? What responsibility do we bear to those millions of invisible people whose lives are spent making ours better. Those sneakers we love? Probably made by labourers who were paid slave wages. Those fancy little phones in our pockets? T-shirts? The same, I fear. There are no easy answers. But it's something to think about.
Many childhoods ended on Sunday. Mine ended a long time ago. The Undertaker is gone. I hope to never see him in a wrestling ring again. I thank Mark Calaway and wish him nothing but the best for himself and his family. And that he can rest.