The Deadman Didn't Rise: Revisiting The End Of The Undertaker’s WrestleMania Streak

Ahead of this year's WrestleMania, we look back at its most iconic moment
16:00, 31 Mar 2022

75,167 people can be just as deafening when they are dead silent as when they are roaring in unison. In New Orleans, within the yawning expanse of the Superdome, the city whose air is so often populated with ferocious jazz improvisations and bouncing Bayou revelry, fell solemn with the blues.

The grave hum of shellshocked fans began to reverberate around the stands at a respectful volume, as if the audience were unsure of what the appropriate response was. An unsurprising reaction given the fact history was unfolding before their eyes. The murmurs from the crowd were then pinpricked by the obnoxious shrieking of a celebratory Paul Heyman, his brazen Bronx accent almost mocking the 75,000 disbelieving souls that surrounded him. While jaws hung open and tears trickled down cheeks, the former ECW Messiah and his client, ‘The Beast’ Brock Lesnar, laughed their way out of the ring and all the way to the bank. History makers both, written indelibly into one of the most talked about, infamous moments in not just WWE history, but professional wrestling’s as a whole.

As Heyman and Lesnar cackled, their downed opponent remained motionless. So did much of the crowd, eyeballing him for a reaction. Instead, the movement came overhead on the big screens dotted around the rafters and entrance way of the Superdome. A confirmation of what they thought they’d never see.

21-1.

The streak was over.

For the fans in attendance and those watching at home, the realisation dawned upon them that over two decades worth of memories was irreparably changed. The scoreboard alteration generating an impassioned tirade of outrage within the stadium as well as on social media and in discussion forums. The meme worthy moments were instantaneous and live on to this day, eight years later.

In that instant, however, during the most talked about moment of his unparalleled career, Mark ‘The Undertaker’ Calaway was completely and utterly oblivious to what had just happened. Even if he had agreed to everything beforehand and performed the match as planned, The Phenom had no recollection of his own performance or the fact that he had just spent the best part of half an hour having his skull caved in by a man the size of a private jet.

Before WrestleMania 30, held in New Orleans on 6th April, 2014, The Undertaker had famously won 21 straight WrestleMania matches. All comers, whether they be tall, small, legends, prodigies, family, they all ended up staring at the arena lights for The Deadman, from ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka at WrestleMania 7 to CM Punk at 29. The bouts themselves had become more prestigious than even the World Title matches that would so often headline the shows. Blotting the Undertaker’s WrestleMania record book was an honour that would surely only be bestowed upon the worthiest of WWE superstars. Someone who the brand would be built around for years to come.

Instead, this most esteemed of distinctions would be placed upon the Jeep sized shoulders of a part time act who had little interest in sports entertainment outside of the gargantuan pay cheques it delivered to him. Which is an absolutely fine and, in the grand scheme of how many pro wrestlers end up destitute, disabled or worse, incredibly smart mindset to adopt. It is not an attitude that has endeared the former UFC Heavyweight Champion particularly well to a large section of the WWE fanbase, but it is a very understandable one that has helped protect ‘The Beast’s’ aura over the past decade.

Finally, ‘Taker ambled to a vertical base, scored by the sound of almost a quarter century worth of gratitude from the sellout crowd. The immediate consensus was that this was indeed The Last Ride for a man heralded as ‘the greatest character in the history of the business’ by Ric Flair. When the Deadman could rise no more at WrestleMania, surely there was nothing left for him inside the squared circle. It was expected that a ceremony or angle of some description would be shot the next night on Monday Night Raw to mark this momentous occasion. Instead, Calaway found himself being discharged from Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans after being kept overnight for observation.

Said observation was necessary due to the fact a CT scan revealed The Undertaker had sustained a severe concussion during his historic bout with Lesnar. It was a head trauma so serious it meant The Deadman was operating on nothing but instinct for the majority of the match. Now, just put that into context for a moment. The Undertaker, in a 25 minute outing with one of the most terrifying specimens the world of combat sports has ever seen, was out on his feet, not knowing what day it was, being rag dolled from pillar to post and he still, somehow, someway, made it through the match and reached the required destination.

I once ordered an Uber home from the corner shop because I was too hungover to face the 10 minute walk.

Reaching the ‘Gorilla’ position behind the entrance curtain, it was apparent to everyone present that The Phenom was not in a good way. Immediately an ambulance was summoned and everyone went into emergency mode, including Vince McMahon and Brock Lesnar.

Speaking during his 2020 documentary series ‘The Last Ride’, Calaway explained, “How that match happened I do not know. I have no recollection of it at all. I would say my last memory of that day is around 3.30 in the afternoon.”

WWE Athletic Trainer Larry Heck, explaining on the same documentary, said of the post-match scene, “He was sitting in the walkway outside Gorilla with a happy dazed look on his face. He had no idea where he was at. He looked at me and smiled and said ‘heeeey’ and I was like ‘oh boy, something is wrong here’.”

Footage shared from The Last Ride shows McMahon beckoning for help as he realises how dire the situation with The Deadman is. Heck accompanied ‘Taker in the ambulance to Ochsner Medical Center and remembered a black SUV pulling up behind them at the hospital as they arrived.

‘Taker’s wife, former WWE Divas Champion Michelle McCool, recalled the memory vividly.

“Doors open, first person there, WrestleMania’s still going on, but outside the ambulance, it’s Vince. Vince and Brock. He was so severely concussed that he had no ideas what his name was, where we were, why we were in New Orleans. He didn’t know his name until 4am.”

If the reaction inside the Superdome to ‘Taker’s departure was a sign of how monumentally well respected and revered he was (and still is), then the sight of John Cena rushing to help him backstage and McMahon and Lesnar tailing the ambulance to the hospital with ‘Mania still in progress was proof that he is a figure who has transcended the industry. McMahon is almost religiously glued to his monitor backstage during WWE events, directing traffic, producing the commentary teams over their headsets and obsessing over every final detail. For him to abandon his position during the latter stages of the biggest show of the year, it had to be a crisis of such magnitude that he could not bring himself to put anything before it. On the other hand, you had Lesnar, a man who views his role as punching in and out of a job. Arrive, take care of business in the ring, leave. No time for pleasantries or locker room shenanigans. But instead there he was, accompanying perhaps his most storied rival into hospital, wanting to ensure his well being, wanting the peace of mind that the man who had taught him so much during his formative years in the business was going to be alright.

Fortunately, ‘Taker was able to be safely discharged the following afternoon, but the road to recovery was long and arduous. The concussion itself is believed to have occurred during a leg takedown on the outside of the ring. Watching the spot back, it appears to be completely innocuous, especially in comparison to the rest of Lesnar’s super heavyweight repertoire of full blooded German and belly-to-belly suplexes. ‘Taker hits the protective mats at ringside with a thud for sure, but nothing that the casual observer would regard as violent or dangerous. But with the benefit of hindsight, rewatches of the bout confirm that Calaway is moving more sluggishly after the incident. It is an uneasiness that one could quite easily mistake as a seasoned veteran selling their opponent’s offence note perfectly. However, chillingly, this is a man who is simply not there behind the eyes, at the mercy of Brock Lesnar.

And it is for this that ‘The Beast’ himself deserves a litany of platitudes, with his blood and thunder viking style aggression seemingly the last offence you would wish upon a man in his 50’s in the throes of a severe concussion. Yet Lesnar operated in such a safe manner that no further injuries were inflicted. He was steering the ship perhaps without knowing just how much he was doing. ‘Taker’s muscle memory may account for the fair share of his remaining display, but Lesnar still took care of business with the utmost professionalism.

The discussion surrounding the decision to hand the streak’s destruction to Lesnar has raged ever since, predictably gaining momentum around every WrestleMania season. There has, of course, been an industrial sized amount of discourse that contends that an audible was called mid-match, when it became apparent ‘Taker wasn’t all there and perhaps couldn’t convincingly pull a victory out of the bag without the finish looking too fake and contrived. This, obviously, is a theory that has been shot down from all involved, even if every once in a while Paul Heyman has attempted to stir the pot ever so slightly during interviews in order to set tongues wagging.

It must be said, though, that whoever was given this responsibility was always going to struggle with carrying it convincingly. Unless you’re the most believable killer the company has ever had on its books. And in Lesnar, a 285 pound wrecking machine who looks like he ate Ivan Drago for his elevenses, Vince McMahon had that killer. He had the man who would care not one bit for anybody’s triggered remarks or disdain. Lesnar sauntered back to his ranch in the middle of nowhere in Canada on 7th April, 2014 and resumed whatever it is he does out there, presumably murdering horned livestock with his bare hands, until his extortionate services were required again. Four months later he was performing a live dismembering of John Cena at SummerSlam en route to being crowned WWE World Heavyweight Champion for the fourth time. It would be another two years and three months until someone would defeat him by pinball or submission.

Eight years removed from that fateful night in Louisiana, with the Undertaker set to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in his home state of Texas, by none other than Vince McMahon himself, it’s hard to believe he still turned out to play the hits at five more WrestleManias, taking down Bray Wyatt, Shane McMahon, John Cena and finally AJ Styles (with a loss to Roman Reigns thrown in the midst to dent the ‘Mania record ever so slightly more). For the man himself, it’s similarly shocking, given the crisis of confidence he underwent after Lesnar became the one in 21-1.

“One concussion in one match destroyed my confidence. I don’t think anyone even knew really. It was Triple H that spotted it. As I was getting ready to go out (for his match against Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31 in San Francisco a year later) I was riddled with self doubt. Triple H came up to me and said ‘hey, remember who the fuck you are’.”

For a man with the CV of The Undertaker, legacy is everything. He will be received in Dallas on Friday night in the American Airlines Center as the icon he truly is and forever will be to millions of fans around the world. At some point over the two nights of WrestleMania 38 this weekend, he will be unveiled to the tens of thousands of people inside AT&T Stadium as a Hall of Famer for the first time. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated induction in WWE history. That man from eight years ago, mohawked like an elongated Travis Bickle who had traded his taxi for a motorbike, staggering around the Superdome punch drunk, unable to soak in the adulation of a crowd paying their respects to him, was never going to be the man Mark Calaway would allow to be people’s lasting memory of him.

And while he may never have quite scaled the heights of his most iconic bouts with the likes of Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista and Edge in his final few WrestleMania outings (although the Boneyard match with AJ Styles was a bona fide banger), The Undertaker still gave us plenty of reasons to remember why, even after over 30 years, goosebumps remain upon his entrance gong ringing out across an arena. His dark night in Louisiana almost a decade ago may have made him appear more human than ever, but his long deserved place in the Hall of Fame ensures his legacy is immortal.

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