Lutz's Blog: Retirements have become part of WrestleMania tradition
By Jeffrey Lutz
One of my earliest wrestling memories happened more than 20 years ago at WrestleMania 7, when Randy Savage (then known as "Macho King") lost a retirement match to the Ultimate Warrior.
Of course, Savage's loss in that match was just the first part of an angle that would eventually lead to his return barely six months later, but I was eight then and I didn't know that. Wrestling may not have been completely real at the time, but the emotion of Savage seemingly losing his livelihood, and his post-match embrace with Miss Elizabeth, definitely was real.
It took WWE almost two decades to seize upon that emotion once again. Wrestlers came and went at WrestleMania, but the moments that struck a chord with viewers that way were few and far between. There has been and always will be drama at WWE's biggest event of the year, but rarely have their been real-life moments like the one at WrestleMania 7 with Savage and Elizabeth that were separate from the excitement of near falls in main-event matches or title changes.
Then Ric Flair happened. Few wrestlers are prolific enough to have their potential retirement advertised at WrestleMania, which is partly why we saw so few Savage-esque moments in the years following his non-retirement retirement. It's difficult to drum up strong feelings for King Kong Bundy's last match or Haku's final hurrah, and WWE wasn't exactly stocked with future Hall of Famers between the years of WrestleManias 8 through 12.
Flair, though, certainly qualified for a "real" WrestleMania moment. We could never be too sure that Flair wouldn't wrestle again, and of course he has many times outside of WWE since his loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24, but that doesn't detract from the way I felt then. Michaels-Flair is probably my favorite match of all-time because of the story it told and the emotion it produced. I've watched the match several times since it happened and I find myself caught up in the moment every time.
Two years after Flair's pseudo-retirement, it was Michaels' turn to go out with something real. The reality of his final match, against Undertaker at WrestleMania 26, may have taken longer to sink in, because retirement matches are usually more like hiatus matches, and it seemed certain (or at least hopeful) that Michaels would wrestle again. Michaels' walk from the ring in his last match was the final image of that show, an indication of how great his career was and how much WWE values its rare displays of the true human condition.
A retirement isn't complete, however, without a heartwarming speech and celebration the following night on Raw. Flair's was the most star-studded, as the wrestlers he crossed paths with frequently during his long career joined him to send Flair off from WWE five years ago. Michaels' speech was perhaps the most genuine, the completion of a career that saw him turn from a troubled, brash young man and performer into a universally-adored one.
Not all WrestleMania retirements have produced so much pomp and circumstanced. Edge, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and John Bradshaw Layfield all had their final matches at WrestleMania necessitated by injuries. Austin and JBL didn't even get goodbye speeches, and Edge's was underlined with heartbreak as he explained the neck injuries that forced him to walk away from wrestling before his time.
Retirements fit into WrestleMania because a four-hour show can change tones several times to keep fans emotionally involved and invested. A fast-paced first match that prompts jubilation can transition into a comedown that culminates in a dramatic true-to-life moment that carries viewers through the rest of the longest show of the year. Flair's retirement happened in the middle of WrestleMania 24, and fans remained invested but refocused on main event matches involving Floyd Mayweather and Undertaker's streak.
Triple H could be next in line. My feeling that he loses a week from Sunday to Brock Lesnar stems from my belief that he wants a moment like the one Michaels and Flair enjoyed during and following their final matches. He wants to go out while still relevant as a performer and while he can still put in close to peak-level performances. He wants one more spotlight and one more lengthy ovation.
Retiring at WrestleMania is an honor that one could argue exceeds induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. It's reserved for the best of the best. Thirty-minute matches between great workers with championships on the line and near-fall after near-fall produce unbelievable drama, but even that can't match an all-time great saying goodbye at WrestleMania.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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