By Michael Melchor – 04.03.2017
I remember the last one. It was 2008. Ric Flair. WrestleMania 24. I lived about an hour from Orlando at the time but wasn’t able to make it to the show live. I had seen a lot of the peripheral events; if you watch very carefully you can see moving my son out of harm’s way during the Jimmy Jacobs & Tyler Black vs Jay & Mark Briscoe match at RoH Supercard of Honor III.
Going into WrestleMania 24, it was pretty well known the “Nature Boy” was walking into his last match. The way it played out was a perfect sendoff. And although his career (sadly) didn’t end against Shawn Michaels, the moment was as emotional as wrestling gets (and that’s to say nothing of the tribute the night after on Raw). But, again – we expected it going in.
Not so much the case with 2017. The Undertaker. WrestleMania 33.
There had been talk of this being Undertaker’s last match, sure. But there was no build for it. The 75,000-plus at Camping World Stadium and however-many-million watching on the WWE Network or pay-per-view (is that still a thing?) were expecting the Undertaker to vanquish the <s>villain</s> (no, even though he’s technically a “good guy,” he’s just simply hated) Roman Reigns and mark another notch in his belt. Instead, Reigns got the victory and left the crowd surprised.
But the real shock came when Undertaker put his hat, coat, and gloves back on. Then immediately took them off, left them in the ring, and walked away. Seemingly for good.
The year was 1991. I was already a big wrestling fan. I watched WWE, but my heart was with the NWA. I lived in Florida, remember? I got to see Championship Wrestling from Florida every week, starring Dusty Rhodes, Ron Bass, Barry Windham, “Big” Ed “The Bull” Gantner, Nikita and Ivan Koloff, and the Four Horsemen. That kind of action and realism always struck more of a chord with me than the cartoony antics of Hulk Hogan and friends.
And then I saw The Undertaker. I was immediately enthralled by this massive, mysterious figure who barely moved but still dominated anything in his path. The idea of death’s handpicked representative stalking wrestling rings sounds silly now that I write it out, but it was played so well that I couldn’t help but be fascinated. I was hooked from his introduction, hen Ted Dibiase suddenly seemed to go darker and decide if he wouldn’t own WWE, he would destroy it – starting with the Undertaker.
Obviously, I became a fan. Even through the lean years of feuds with El Gigante and Kama the Supreme Fighting Machine, I followed the storied career of the Undertaker. The way his stories were told – even when things got goofy – were so different than anything else wrestling had to offer.
About that time in 2008 when Flair was going to “retire,” fans were coming out of the shock of the schlock of the Undertaker’s stories and realizing that this guy could wrestle, too. A year later, he would met Shawn Michaels. The legend of the Undertaker would be cemented in the minds of many with these performances and others to come all the way up until what may have been his last ride at Wrestlemania 33.
I wasn’t able to make it in person to see Ric Flair’s sendoff. As I live five states away from my former home, I wasn’t able to see the Undertaker’s in person, either. The latter is an especially bitter pill to swallow. And it’s funny that it involves a character centered around death.
I had begun making plans to go to WrestleMania 33 with one of my best friends, Nic (spelled like “Ric” for a reason) as he still lived in our old stomping grounds, not too far from where Wrestlemania would be. We began working things out shortly after the announcement was made in 2016 that they’d be in orlando the following year.
Those plans were scrapped on May 4, 2016. I would find that out on Facebook on May 5 when I learned Nic was killed by a moving train.
On April 2, I watched Wrestlemania – an event I should have been at live with one of my best friends – from my house several states away. And I couldn’t help but think of what Nic would have thought of the spectre of death walking away one last time.
Decades of fandom came to an sudden end at Wrestlemania 33. Many have mourned the end of a career and thanked the man behind it for his years of making us believe even the most ridiculous of circumstances and be entertained in spite of ourselves.
Rest in peace.