At WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans a year and a half ago, WWE shocked the wrestling world by having Brock Lesnar end The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at the annual blockbuster event. If you’ve heard Lesnar’s personal advocate Paul Heyman open his mouth anytime over the last year and half, you probably already know this, because he has made it a point to remind as many people as possible, as often as possible, which is why we now have Lesnar vs. Undertaker in Taker’s signature end-all, be-all match up: Hell in a Cell.
To understand the importance of this match is to understand a little piece of storyline psychology. It has been speculated that the recent return of The Undertaker had more to do with sagging ratings and an attempt to spike WWE Network subscription numbers ahead of the quarterly conference call with investors, but a closer look at the direction of WWE’s primary storyline reveals a psychology behind the seemingly random return of the Dead Man than previously met the eye.
The man behind The Undertaker, Mark Callaway, is a 30-year veteran of the professional wrestling business. That is a lot of years and a lot of miles on a body in a physically taxing industry on a six-foot, ten-inch, 300 pound body. Rumors have abounded over the years as to Taker’s ailments: bad hips, bad knees, bad back, you name it, and indeed, prolonged hiatuses could be attributed to the fact that, at 50 years of age, The Undertaker is nowhere near as impervious to pain as his character had once portrayed.
The Undertaker had gone a remarkable 21-0 at WWE’s signature event, WrestleMania, a feat that will likely never be surpassed, but leading into WrestleMania 30, WWE had a business decision to make. After seeing Taker beat the likes of Triple H and Shawn Michaels, twice each, in a series of matches that each could be considered all time greats, Taker was pit against Brock Lesnar, The Conqueror. Lesnar, still in his thirties, had returned to the company after dominating the heavyweight division of the UFC before diverticulitis cut Lesnar’s mixed martial arts career short. Leading into WrestleMania 30, we had a near 50-year-old, obviously physically ailing Undertaker, versus a Beast nearly half his age, who had become WWE’s first legit “real” butt-kicker who knocked out a man many consider to be UFC’s greatest champion ever, Randy Couture.
The outcome was inevitable.
If not Lesnar, then who would be the man to end The Undertaker’s streak? Many argue that it should never have ended, but in professional wrestling, there is a thing called “giving someone a rub.” That is where you take an established star and use his star power to “make” another star. It is, quite simply, “best for business.” Now, Lesnar surely didn’t need “the rub,” but what WWE did in having Lesnar beat The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania is set someone else up to get “the rub.” What’s the next best thing to snapping The Undertaker’s streak at WrestleMania? Beating the seemingly unbeatable beast who did.
So, now we have what I call the “Taker Rub.” Whichever young up-and-comer manages to knock Lesnar off his throne not only gets the accolades of having done so, but can lay claim to beating the one in 21-1. But who would it be? Going into WrestleMania 31, it appeared that would be Roman Reigns, but here is where Vince McMahon shows his brilliance. Why use this once-in-a-lifetime “Taker Rub” to make just one star when you can make two, and also use pay-per-view’s biggest draw, Lesnar, to rake in buyrates and/or WWE Network subscriptions for multiple events rather than just one?
At WrestleMania 31, after decimating Reigns for most of the match, Lesnar appeared to be on the ropes as the Samoan butt-kicker started firing back. Then, after being stopped by one of Lesnar’s patented moves, the F-5, Seth Rollins cashed in his Money In The Bank opportunity to insert himself into the match and take advantage of a prone Reigns to win the WWE Championship. What would transpire afterward would be a year in which Rollins would establish himself as WWE’s top bad guy, while giving a fuming Lesnar all the motivation for a return later in the year.
When Lesnar came back, of course, he wanted to take the championship that he never rightfully lost back from the cheat who snuck it away, Rollins. The stage was set for their encounter at this year’s Night of Champions event, where Lesnar threw Rollins around like a rag doll. As it appeared Lesnar was about to take back his championship, the lights go out, and who should appear but The Undertaker, bent on revenge for a year and a half of bragging about his WrestleMania defeat.
But why would WWE bring The Undertaker back now, and now save the rematch for next year’s WrestleMania?
For one, by announcing the long-awaited rematch for this year’s SummerSlam, WWE ensured a flock of subscribers to the WWE Network. Second, in that year and a half’s time, injuries to top stars necessitated the reworking of certain storylines and things, as they tend to do with a live, weekly, ongoing episodic saga, changed. This meant that WWE needed to hit the reset button so to speak, and remind everyone what an insurmountable butt-kicker Lesnar is. The way to do this? Have Lesnar definitively and emphatically put the most dominant force in WWE history down, for good. This reestablishes Lesnar as the top dog, and reignites that “Taker Rub,” which can now be passed on to another young star. Remember — Roman Reigns took Lesnar’s best and was in the process of giving it back before Rollins interrupted, and the two have never had a rematch. It is likely that Reigns was placed into his current angle with Bray Wyatt as something of a placeholder while WWE got the storyline kinks worked out in an effort to build toward Lesnar vs. Reigns II at WrestleMania 32. Other rumored opponents including The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, while exciting, do nothing to help the future of WWE’s bottom line. Such established stars only need to come back to put over younger talent, as evidenced by Chris Jericho’s recent run. By having Lesnar beat The Undertaker in Taker’s most dangerous match, WWE sets the table to “make” another star, as they already have with Rollins, and my contention is that will likely be Reigns, but could also be someone I consider to be this generation’s Roddy Piper, Dean Ambrose.
What, then, becomes of The Undertaker? At 50-years-old, Mark Callaway’s body has taken a beating. Following his last two encounters with Lesnar, The Undertaker legit collapsed due to the physical toll both matches took on him. Callaway is a happily married man with children and, by all reports, seems very happy in his small Texas town. The Undertaker has given more to the business of professional wrestling than just about any other performer in its history. Following a final farewell performance at what stands to be the biggest WrestleMania of all time next year in Dallas, The Undertaker has earned the right to go into the Hall of Fame, and say goodbye to the audience he has entertained for nearly three decades in his home state and in front of what will surely be the largest WrestleMania crowd of all time.