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.
Here we are at the final three matches in The Streak and I find myself reminiscing about the first part of this series. I mentioned the WrestleMania XXVI match against Shawn Michaels and the way it transformed me from someone who analyzes wrestling back into someone that suspends their disbelief and allows themselves to believe in wrestling. This is the effect that all three of these matches have.
There is something so special about this part of The Streak. Not only are all three of these matches absolutely breathtaking, but they all leave the viewer with a slight twinge of sadness as well. Rarely does wrestling have this cathartic effect and I believe that wrestling is at its best when it does.
I find it difficult to imagine a trilogy of matches as diverse, as entertaining, and as exciting as these. Not only do they deliver from a match-quality standpoint, but they deliver from an emotional perspective. These three matches are absolutely perfect to me. As a wrestling fan, they are my ideal.
WrestleMania XXV - Undertaker vs. "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels:
Everyone knew this match would be good. This rivalry had two years to percolate prior to the match finally occurring. At the 2007 Royal Rumble (two years before this event), The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels were the final two wrestlers vying for their opportunity at WrestleMania. They put on an amazing sequence that is still the best final two in Royal Rumble history. This was the beginning.
At the 2008 Royal Rumble, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker were numbers one and two. That match started the same way that the year before ended. More and more, fans were wondering what would happen if these two men clashed at the largest show of the year. Shawn Michaels was a notable name from the same era as The Undertaker and he was a fitting challenger for The Streak.
"The Heartbreak Kid" would earn that opportunity in 2009 when, after he defeated JBL and earned his financial freedom, he defeated Vladimir Kozlov. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker were now set on a collision course for what would be the crowning moment of The Streak.
The build to this match leaned heavily on Shawn Michaels' Christian values and him putting them up against The Undertaker's love of darkness. It was a basic build that played to both of their strengths. In one memorable segment, Shawn Michaels came to the ring on Smackdown dressed in an all-white version of Undertaker's standard costume.
At WrestleMania, this theme continued in the entrances. Shawn Michaels descended from the heavens above, in prayer, before making his usual walk/dance down the entrance ramp. The Undertaker was raised up from under the stage, as if coming from hell itself. His entrance was standard, but it was also spectacular. The Undertaker entrance at WrestleMania has become an art form in itself.
The match was indescribably good. They started by cutting a quick pace. Shawn used his speed and quickness to combat the size of The Undertaker. He chopped extremely hard (a theme that ran through this match until Undertaker's chest was bloody and red). They built the top of this match to grab the crowd and drag them into a deliberate middle portion of the match.
The midpoint consisted of the single scariest moment of The Streak. Undertaker jumped for his standard WrestleMania dive and Shawn Michaels moved a camera man into Undertaker's path (Sim Snuka). Sadly, Snuka was not prepared to catch The Undertaker and basically let him land on his head. Undertaker laid on the floor as Shawn Michaels covered for him and begged the referee to count The Undertaker out. Undertaker made it back to the ring before the ten count expired.
The end of this match was filled with dramatic near-falls. The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels climbed to the amorphous next level that few wrestlers will ever reach. They went beyond a simple match and suddenly this was a moment in time that could never be replicated. The drama and intensity from Undertaker and Shawn Michaels was suddenly a melodrama playing out before the audience's eyes.
I watched this match with friends that do not love wrestling and they became enraptured in this match. Every moment, every near fall and every kick out was life or death to everyone in the room. This match went beyond wrestling and became a work of art.
In the time after this match Shawn Michaels has called it as close as he would ever get to "the perfect match." On "The True Story of WrestleMania" documentary it was described by many WWE superstars as the best match ever. This is not an over-exaggeration.
WrestleMania XXVI - Undertaker vs. "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels in a Career vs. Streak Match:
When asked about this match and how it compares to the previous year's Shawn Michaels and Undertaker encounter, most fans will agree that this was the more dramatic match (and the more enjoyable to watch) while the previous year was the better technical match. This is my favorite match of all time. Due to a number of factors, including its sheer quality and the experience of seeing it live in the stadium, I cannot think of a match that I have ever enjoyed more than this match.
As I rewatched this match, I found myself getting wrapped up in the action. Even though I knew exactly how it would end, I still sat back and cheered. This match did not have a happy ending, but it left me feeling like this was everything wrestling should be. Once again, Undertaker and Shawn Michaels managed to not only create an amazing wrestling match, but a brilliant cathartic and experience. They could never recreate what they did the year before, but they could top it in terms of drama.
Shawn Michaels had to beg for this match. He believed that he made one mistake at WrestleMania the year before and knew that he was close to ending The Streak. Finally, after months of pleading and after Shawn Michaels cost him the World Heavyweight Championship, The Undertaker agreed to face Shawn Michaels. This would only happen under one condition: Michaels had to put his career on the line.
This match closed out WrestleMania XXVI, which is the first and only time a match that was solely part of The Streak would do so. No championships were on the line, just a record that meant more than anything else.
The entrances on this show were not as thematic as the ones the year before. Shawn Michaels performed a slightly larger version of his standard entrance. It was fitting to take the light and dark themes out of this match. The story was now about one man's determination and obsession, not about a clash of values. The Undertaker came from beneath the stage once again and there was a spectacular overhead shot of his entrance through the open roof of the stadium.
Instead of jumping straight into the action, both men met in the center of the ring for a stare-down. Shawn Michaels delivered Undertaker's trademark throat-slashing gesture and incensed The Deadman. This began a match that seemed mildly similar to WrestleMania XXV. Undertaker tweaked his knee early in the match and this would become a focal point. Shawn Michaels went back to the knee multiple times, including a figure four around mid-match.
Towards the top, Undertaker looked poised to fly, but in a moment of wisdom scarcely seen in wrestling, Shawn Michaels stopped him. Sadly, this would not signal the end of Undertaker's near death dives in The Streak.
This match suffered a little bit from the standard set the year before. Michaels and Undertaker hit each other with finishers, but the crowd knew this match would not end with simply one. It had to go on. There was too much on the line for either man to be kept down.
This match did not feature the fluid move to move action of the year before, but was constructed of many big spots that fed into the drama of the situation. Both men were going for the kill early and often. Being in the crowd, I can say there was never a boring moment. I never wished for the match to end. I was on the edge of my seat or on my feet the entire time.
Late in the match, Undertaker attempted to hit his Last Ride on Shawn Michaels through an announce table, but Michaels slipped out and delivered Sweet Chin Music to Undertaker. With Undertaker down on the table, Michaels went to the top rope and delivered an amazing moonsault through the table. Sadly, Undertaker would have to be moved back into the ring and at that point, he was able to kick out.
The crowd got loud with dueling "Undertaker" and "HBK" chants. These were not the stereotypical dueling chants from a bored crowd looking to entertain themselves. These fans were picking their side and cheering passionately for it. Everyone's attention was on the ring.
The ending was the most dramatic I can remember. Undertaker had delivered a Tombstone to Michaels, but was not able to keep him down for three. He took down the straps of his tank top and yelled for Michaels to stay down. Michaels defiantly stood, using Undertaker's body to pull himself up, but he could not quite make it to his feet. Undertaker pulled Michaels up, in a rare moment of pity, and Michaels once again delivered Undertaker's own throat-slashing gesture. This was followed by a slap to Undertaker's face. Not to be outdone, Undertaker picked up Michaels and delivered a jumping Tombstone Piledriver to end one of the greatest careers of all time.
Undertaker celebrated in the ring as fireworks shot off in and outside the stadium. As the lights came back up, Michaels stood. Undertaker shook his hand and the two embraced in the center of the ring. As over 70,000 people offered a standing ovation, Michaels walked out and back up the ramp slowly, taking in the final moments of his amazing career.
While the year before may have delivered better action bell to bell, the story told in this match makes it the most important in the history of The Streak. It told fans that The Streak is worth the sacrifice of a career. Every match in The Streak is now more important because this match made The Streak more important.
WrestleMania XXVII - Undertaker vs. "The Game" Triple H in a No Holds Barred Match:
Expectations are a tricky mistress. After two years of having the best matches of his career against Shawn Michaels, Undertaker was set to face Michaels' best friend, Triple H. While Triple H is a great wrestler by his own merits, he is no Shawn Michaels.
Undertaker had not wrestled at all in 2011. After Bragging Rights 2010, where he was buried alive by Kane, he left to have shoulder surgery. WrestleMania was on the very short end of the calendar established for Undertaker's comeback.
Triple H had not wrestled since April 2010. It had been almost a year since Sheamus put Triple H out of action. In that time he worked extensively backstage and assumed his role in the WWE corporate structure. He also built anticipation for his return.
This feud began, in earnest, on February 21, 2011. For weeks there were vignettes promoting this date with a cabin in the rain. While many fans expected Sting to show up on that fateful day (rational fans realized it wasn't happening prior to 2-21-11), it was Undertaker that emerged from the rain-soaked cabin.
As he stood in the ring, Triple H's music hit and he came out and stood face to face with Undertaker. This created one of the most memorable confrontations in Raw history as neither man said a word, but everyone knew that these two would settle their differences at WrestleMania.
Much like the two matches against Shawn Michaels, the video package shown before the match was an essential part of it. These packages for Undertaker are the best work WWE has ever done.
The entrances for this match were absolutely essential to it as well. Triple H entered to Metallica's "For Whom The Bell Tolls" before shifting over to his classic Motörhead theme. The Undertaker also bucked tradition slightly by forgoing the funeral march that normally lead him to the ring (except for those awful Limp Bizkit years) and selecting Johnny Cash's chilling "Ain't No Grave" to set the tone.
The match kicked off very quickly with brawling on the floor that led to the classic Cole Mine explosion of WrestleMania XXVII. This was followed by a back body drop from Undertaker to Triple H from an announce table to the floor. Almost immediately we saw the classic Undertaker WrestleMania dive with the classic WrestleMania averted tragedy attached. As Undertaker recovered, he ran at Triple H and was served a Spinebuster through the Spanish announce table.
These spots were well executed, but they happened very early in the match. All of the action above was in the first half of this match and it may have hurt the match down the stretch. After these spots the selling became the story as both men had received high-impact moves from the other.
As Undertaker and Triple H began to hit their signature offensive maneuvers (The Last Ride, The Chokeslam, The Tombstone Piledriver and The Pedigree) the fans sat on their hands. Everyone knew that this match would not end with one finisher or even two. This hurt the drama of the match and showed the dangerous precedent that the two brilliant encounters with Shawn Michaels may have set.
Triple H would go absolutely insane on Undertaker with a steel chair, including a rare shot to the head. More surprising than a chair-shot to the head is what happened next.
In the greatest wrestling moment of 2011 and one of the defining moments of The Streak, Triple H, after The Undertaker pulled himself up, delivered the Tombstone Piledriver to him and pinned him. Every fan in the arena suddenly stood. Every fan watching at home suddenly gasped. This moment made everyone believe that The Streak was over. What they had failed to do in the build-up to the match and what the match had lacked suddenly was there. The drama went from third gear to sixth gear without warning.
The match ended soon after with Triple H succumbing to the Hell's Gate submission hold, but the story did not end there. Undertaker was unable to walk from the ring and as pyro went off to celebrate 19-0, he simply laid on the canvas. Triple H walked out, but Undertaker did not.
While this match contained a lot of big spots, followed by long periods of selling, it definitely belongs in the discussion with the two Shawn Michaels matches. The call from Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler made those long periods of selling as dramatic as they could be. The facial expressions and subtle acting from both men was fantastic. This was two masters at work.
This match comes down to one moment; Triple H's Tombstone. Without that moment, the match is between mediocre and average. With that moment, the match is the third in a series of transcendent matches from one of the best of all time.
The Verdict at 19-0:
It is these three matches that have added the gravitas that The Streak needed. It went from being a collection of matches with gradual improvement to being the greatest assembly of matches from one wrestler in history. No one can possibly replicate what Undertaker has done since 1991 and no one should try.
In watching all 19 of these matches it is clear that The Undertaker's improvement over time is more than coincidence. No wrestler has ever had the late-career resurgence that Undertaker has. While he could easily rest on his laurels and cease to improve, The Undertaker has upped his game year after year. Even watching the bad portions of The Streak was a rewarding process. The matches that failed to deliver were the reminders that Undertaker was not always as great as he is today.
At WrestleMania XXVIII we will see Undertaker attempt to create the 20th chapter of The Streak and it is conceivable that the best is to come. Whether or not Undertaker wrestles again after Sunday night, he will have accomplished something that will never be replicated.
Let's do some good old fashioned talking about this blog and Undertaker's Streak! Feel free to email me at email@example.com or to follow me on twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime.