Pruett's Blog Flashback: The Undertaker's Streak Series Part Four - From Statistic to Story, The Streak Evolves - WrestleMania XXI - WrestleMania XXIV
By Will Pruett
In anticipation of WrestleMania, we'll be reposting this series with a new section covering Undertaker's 21st WrestleMania win appearing on Saturday.
While in last week's edition of The Streak Series, I discussed the evolution of The Undertaker, this week is where we see his evolution in full effect. I've been waiting through this entire series for a set of matches that would not include one disappointment and I have finally found it. It was in these years that The Undertaker truly evolved into more than just a gimmick and a black hat, but a great wrestler as well.
As they began, we were all still wondering if this was a nostalgia run. Was The Deadman back just to hang around for the twilight of his career and occasionally have a little run in the main event? It seems strange today, but The Streak was a cool marketing gimmick as we went into 2005, not the prize it would become. As a viewer at the time, it did not matter much to me. The opponents up to this point were mostly scrubs with some impressive names thrown in (many in the twilight of their careers).
This series of matches is different. This series contains four men in their prime challenging Undertaker.
WrestleMania XXI - Undertaker vs. "The Legend Killer" Randy Orton:
This was one of those matches that made me believe, going into it, that The Streak was sure to end. Before this feud with Randy Orton, The Undertaker had been up against notable names like Heidenreich and Luther Reigns. Indeed, he did not seem to mean what he once did and the last part of his career seemed to be looming.
Across the ring from Undertaker stood Randy Orton. Orton had just recently turned heel again after his failed babyface run in 2004. He did this by randomly delivering an RKO to his on-screen girlfriend Stacy Keibler. Let's just say that Orton now hopes to never cross paths with George Clooney. This sudden return to the "Legend Killer" character was a reset of sorts after the babyface turn was so ill-suited to him. Orton was also coming into this match with a shoulder injury that would require surgery soon after WrestleMania which seemed to hinder him at points in this match.
The Undertaker's entrance this year included Druids, but instead of hanging out in the aisle, they surrounded the ring with their sticks of fire. Undertaker himself entered but did not walk to the ring; he levitated. I'm assuming this effect was created using a skateboard and a production assistant pulling on a string attached to it, but it was still one of Undertaker's most memorable walks/glides to the ring.
They wrestled a very fast style that felt like a mid-card match as opposed to a super-dramatic main-event. Orton drove this pace with the early story being that he was faster than the more powerful Undertaker. Notably, on the shoulder injury front, Orton collapsed rather than taking the full brunt of Old School early in the match. This could have been him protecting himself from Undertaker's weight coming down on his shoulder. Between this and the odd timing at points in the match, Undertaker and Orton did not mesh perfectly.
The end of this match is one of my favorites in the history of The Streak. Undertaker took Orton up for the Chokeslam, but Orton was able to counter it into an RKO and I, along with so many others, believed that The Streak was over. It did not seem impossible for Undertaker to lose and with Orton trying to cement himself once again as a heel, it felt like the logical choice. He was the "Legend Killer" and there was no greater legend left to kill.
Of course, Orton only ended up with a two count and tried to hit Undertaker with his own Tombstone. This would lead to an often repeated spot in The Streak where Undertaker flipped Orton around into the Tombstone position and delivered his finishing maneuver for a three count. Undertaker did not wrestle his Deadman style in this one. It was not synonymous with his "American Bad Ass" years, but taken out of context and without entrances, it would fit into those years.
WrestleMania XXII - Undertaker vs. Mark Henry in a Casket Match:
There had to be at least one Casket Match in Undertaker's Streak. The Casket Match has never been that good or that entertaining. This gimmick is one of the many that is closely associated with Undertaker. Aside from Hell in a Cell, which one could argue has that association, none of the matches associated with Undertaker are as cool as they sound.
This Casket Match was with Mark Henry. This was as close to his 2011 run as Mark Henry ever got. He had matches against the likes of Kurt Angle coming into this match and was a dominant heel. Fans were not as supportive of this incarnation of monster Mark Henry as they were last year. He was caught in a place where legitimacy seemed to elude him.
The Undertaker was also coming off of a really good match with Kurt Angle (No Way Out 2006, look it up) which was preceded by a big return at the 2006 Royal Rumble. This Mark Henry feud was the next big thing for Undertaker.
The casket had the first entrance and it was accompanied by Druids. Following this was Mark Henry coming to the ring. After the gong hit for Undertaker, we saw some really ugly post-produced "lightning strikes" on the entryway. Then walls of fire rose up and Undertaker stepped onto the stage. This was a decent entrance, but it was not as well produced as Undertaker's others. The elements were there, but it lacked cohesiveness.
This match saw Undertaker shift from the leather pants he returned in to his current tights and tank top. This was a welcome shift as the black leather pants and belt looked silly. I tend to believe that Undertaker's mystical powers can hold his pants up better than a belt ever could.
The majority of this match was Undertaker trying and failing to take Mark Henry down. It was a fairly basic story, but these guys told it pretty well. Undertaker threw every move he could at Henry including "Old School" and his flying clothesline, but Henry stood tall.
They used the casket in some innovative ways as well. It was an extra-large casket, presumably to fit Mark Henry who was a little (okay, a lot) wider then than he is today. The two men fought inside of the casket, all around it and there were a few nice moments where it seemed that Undertaker was about to be locked inside.
Perhaps the failure of this match was its failure to convince fans that The Streak could end. There was never a moment where anyone believed Mark Henry would be that guy and, in direct contrast to Randy Orton the year before, no reason to make him that guy. Mark Henry may have had a similar push to his 2011 one, but in 2006 he was not dynamic enough to justify it.
At ten minutes into this match, Mark Henry was still standing. He had gone outside the ring, been pulled into the casket and had been assaulted in many ways, but he never left his vertical base. He even caught The Undertaker, who was going for his running clothesline, in mid-air and dropped him with the World's Strongest Slam. When he placed Undertaker in the corner, he gave him the customary ten corner punches, but Undertaker managed to lift him up into a powerbomb that was not quite Last Ride quality.
Now that Henry was off his feet, he continued to leave them. This meant a classic WrestleMania dive from Undertaker over the top rope and the casket. Of course, he almost died performing this dive. When will he learn?
Finally, the match ended with Undertaker hitting the Tombstone on Mark Henry and rolling him into the casket. This brought forth casket pyro and more cartoony lightning. This match was a really solid gimmick match and may be one of the better casket matches ever. Sadly, it follows the formula of the early matches of The Streak with a monster opponent up against Undertaker. As a wrestler, Undertaker had proven to be beyond these matches, but as a character it was still such a natural fit.
WrestleMania XXIII - Undertaker vs. "The Animal" Batista for the World Heavyweight Championship:
This is the match where Undertaker began to outperform expectations. Simply put, people were dreading what they perceived to be a boring match between two athletes too large to put something decent together. Batista had been unimpressive since returning from injury at SummerSlam and Undertaker was generally considered to work up to the level of his opponent.
We all should have realized that our expectations were way off. This match came about because The Undertaker, for the first time in his career, won the Royal Rumble. This included the best final two Rumble sequence of all time between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, but we'll save the Michaels talk for next week.
To demonstrate the low expectations of this match, it was placed early in the show. It was the first of the three advertised main events and on the first half of the card. Even backstage, Undertaker and Batista had been written off.
Teddy Long was out to ring-announce for this match, simply because he loves hearing himself say "The Undertaker" and will take advantage of any opportunity to do so. The Undertaker's entrance on this show was as well-produced as I have ever seen. A few lines of Druids lead the way, followed by the classic gong and when the lights went out a backlight came on. We saw The Undertaker in silhouette as fire rose alongside him. This was an amazing entrance. Go watch it now. It's chill. I can wait.
Welcome back. As the match began, both men worked extremely fast. It seemed that they were trying to make up for lost time. There were a few moments where this match felt like twenty minutes crammed into fifteen. This did not hurt the story being told, but it did accelerate it.
This action included quite a bit of brawling around the ring and the classic Undertaker dive over the top rope. Surprisingly, Undertaker did not almost die on this attempt. Batista could teach a master class on catching The Undertaker (and should).
It was during this brawl around the ring segment that this match truly began to feel special. Undertaker was given a running powerslam through the ECW announce table (which I believe was slightly weaker than the French announce table) and it looked like the match could be over. Batista also scored a very convincing near fall off of a Batista Bomb.
While this match did not have anyone convinced The Streak was ending, the effort in the ring was there. While I would not conceive of Batista winning before the match, Undertaker and Batista worked hard to make it believable during the match. This is something Undertaker would make a habit of in his WrestleMania matches to come.
Finally, it was a Tombstone to end the match and begin Undertaker's World Heavyweight Championship reign. Undertaker's feud with Batista would continue. They seemed incapable of having a bad match with each other. This was a landmark match for The Undertaker where he showed that he is never to be underestimated. This reign would end in an injury, but would flow naturally into Undertaker's next WrestleMania opponent.
WrestleMania XXIV - Undertaker vs. Edge for the World Heavyweight Championship:
For the second year in a row, The Undertaker was putting The Streak on the line for an opportunity at the World Heavyweight Championship. These were thin years on Smackdown and Undertaker was healthy enough to work something close to a full-time schedule so it made sense to have him in this picture.
Edge was at the top of his game as the "Ultimate Opportunist" and started this feud back in the first half of 2007. He cashed in the Money in the Bank and took Undertaker's World Championship from him. After an injury, he came back dressed as a camera man and once again cost Undertaker the Championship. Finally, with some help from the Edge-heads (Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins) Edge won the title at Armageddon 2007.
Undertaker had some bad luck with an injury in 2007 as well. He came back to feud with Batista and continued their string of strong matches. Just as that wrapped up, Edge took his attention. While this match was about vengeance for Undertaker, it was about the immortality of ending The Streak for Edge.
This was the first outdoor WrestleMania since 1993 and was far more impressive than that one. Undertaker's entrance was slightly disrupted by the elements as the wind blew smoke everywhere and obscured Undertaker from sight. Once he was visible, all of the smoke had disappeared. It seemed like a good idea in theory, but in the outdoor environment this entrance did not work.
This match may have the worst commentary of The Streak with Michael Cole being joined in the booth by Jonathan Coachman. Coach was not meant for color commentary and sadly his run was immortalized with this main event. This was also the first WrestleMania to be broadcast in HD. The Streak was never prettier.
The match itself was very slow to start. Edge and Undertaker were working a deliberate pace. It was a twenty-five minute match and neither man wanted to burn through everything at the start. It sure did pick up at the end, though.
Undertaker once again made it seem possible, not before the match, but during it, that Edge could end The Streak. The forgone conclusion was locked in, but the work done by Undertaker and Edge allowed fans to suspend their disbelief and cheer for The Undertaker as if he needed them. This was an amazing feat. This was achieved, in part by Edge reversing every signature move of The Undertaker.
In the end, Edge would deliver not one, but two Spears to The Undertaker. Just when it looked like Undertaker was down, he got ahold of Edge's arm and locked in the Hell's Gate submission. This was too much for Edge to take and he tapped out. This was the first match in The Streak that Undertaker won via submission. Adding this hold to his repertoire was yet another step in Undertaker's ongoing evolution.
Undertaker celebrated down on one knee as pyro shot off all around the outdoor stadium. He did not lift the belt into the air, but let it rest on his shoulder. This feud would continue well into 2008 with TLC and Hell in a Cell matches.
The Verdict at 16-0:
These were the years that The Streak became the real story of the matches. Instead of being tacked on as an enhancing story, other stories were tacked onto it. Did the World Championship matter? Yes, but not as much as The Streak. Did vengeance matter? Yes, but not as much as The Streak. These years of Undertaker's Streak built it up to monumental status.
Another interesting note is that none of these matches were bad, or even merely passable. Even Undertaker's match with the constantly underperforming Mark Henry was good. While the list of opponents from these four years sounds impressive, it was not the opponents that made the matches, it was Undertaker.
His evolution to becoming a great wrestler was extraordinarily impressive. Undertaker did not just rest on a gimmick that he knew fans would want to see, but for at least one night a year he pulled out every stop to deliver a performance worthy of being part of what was becoming the most important series of matches of all time.
The best was yet to come and the best would blow away anything Undertaker had done before.
Let's do some good old fashioned talking about this blog and Undertaker's Streak! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to follow me on twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime.
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