There is something undeniably special about this time of year for each and every wrestling fan. Regardless of the state of professional wrestling, the few weeks leading up to WrestleMania turns excitement into a fever pitch. This is our Super Bowl, World Series, and Olympics all rolled up into one. As the WWE's premier event grows bigger and more overstuffed seemingly every year, we can be forgiven as fans if we sometimes feel that more is actually less. Feuds are begun and abandoned in the most convenient of ways to allow for the card to be created, celebrities and pseudo-celebs are flown in from everywhere conceivable to continue their five minutes of fame (many times at the expense of the wrestlers themselves, natch) and slowly something that started off very simply and unassumingly has developed into Caligula's bachelor party. Nonetheless, it's always a time and a day when wrestling fans everywhere can wear their love of the business on their sleeve, putting their gripes aside for the pure spectacle.
Several notable matches were announced on last night's Raw broadcast, and they will do their part to ensure that this year's historic card gives you plenty of reasons to tune in. John Cena will take on ostensibly the best (and hottest) heel in the entire company right now in Bray Wyatt, which gives you not only a clue as to the regard in which the head honcho of the Wyatt Family is held in, but also the trappings of a very good story. Wyatt's odd standoff with The Shield produced plenty of Kodak moments, but always seemed like it had way more going on than the WWE had planned out. Lacking the ability or desire (so far) to fully pull the trigger on Roman Reigns's much-heralded face turn, the decision to take the compelling and frightening bearded prophet and place him on a crash course with the merchandising face of the company seemed a clear choice if ever there was one.
Similarly, Daniel Bryan fans finally got the moment just about everyone has been calling for when the announcement was made (in Oscar-worthy theatrical terms) by Authority villain HHH that not only would Bryan be wrestling Mr. Stephanie at the big dance, but would be involved in the title contest between equally loathed Randy Orton and Batista. There appears little doubt that Bryan's frequent adversities have been building to this confrontation, but it's equally clear that the fans' apathy/seething distaste for Davey B led to hands being forced and Bryan being added to said bout. Rather an odd case of art imitating life, actually, considering the plot point of WWE constantly acknowledging how over Bryan is with the crowd while going out of their way to deliberately verbally bury him. In any case, that match is decidedly upgraded and worthy of a round of applause.
All that being said, this year's WrestleMania (like just about every one I've watched in the past twenty years) is just as equally if not moreso about The Streak. When The Undertaker steps into the ring against Brock Lesnar, every veil is thrown off and we get something we don't get enough of at an event that signals the best of wrestling: pure, unadulterated spectacle and aggression. It's the dichotomy of the physical and the emotional that makes pro wrestling different (and better) than just about anything else. What makes The Streak more compelling is that, even with the number growing every single year, we find ourselves as fans caught in the middle. We are bombarded with reasons (many pushed by the WWE themselves, of course) as to why this will be the year that the Deadman's luck runs out, but we know in our heart that even Machiavellian genius Vince McMahon would never book this story to end that way. Or would he? I'm as cynical as the come, but even I confess that over the last decade or so, nearly every Streak match has featured a moment where I actively wondered. "Could it be here? Could they actually do it?"
The answer, naturally, is a resounding no. This story is one of the few non-manufactured legends that a business built on misdirection has going for it, and no matter how many victories are piled on and how large that digit grows, a blemish is a blemish nonetheless. Taker is rightly regarded as locker room pundit and policeman, epitomizing everything that is right about the business and treating his character as a road map for wrestling itself. He's beloved because he's inscrutable. We want to know more about him because of the mystery, and in an age where you're constantly connected, that's almost unheard of. Even though he's been rewarded with title runs and high profile feuds, it's the undefeated run that is his reward for his years of toil in the WWF/E. But it IS wrestling after all.
When looking back on The Streak as a whole, it's easy to see how something that developed from an excuse to toss every massive circus freak available at Taker has turned into something else completely. I'd wager very few in the industry or in the audience felt that way at the time, though. Undertaker was brought into the company as a very different type of heel, one who remained at his core indestructible even when faced with Hulkamania. You could defeat him, of course, but you never really had the upper hand. From that perspective, the character itself was groundbreaking. Cannon fodder like Jimmy Snuka never had a chance. The fans' awed reaction to this character (even while feuding with icons of the biz like Hogan, Warrior & Savage) caused an about-face and started a road to ruin for a veritable rogues' gallery of heels, as the new face Taker would lay siege.
This year's Hall of Famer Jake Roberts found it out firsthand, in a feud that doesn't get nearly enough credit for how it played out under difficult circumstances. Undertaker was growing into a beloved monster, and the only opposition fearsome enough for a monster is, naturally, another monster. Giant Gonzalez, King Kong Bundy, Diesel, and Sid formed a procession of evil that reminds me of the goons in Dick Tracy, each one bringing a new venom and deformity to the battle and each taking it on the chin. These relatively short, trumped-up squash matches were becoming de rigueur. Once the company ran out of available mutants, they had to head back to the lab and create some fresh ones. Thus was born Kane.
The Kane/Taker storyline epitomizes what wrestling is all about: Taking elements of existing material, pop culture or otherwise, and shaping it into an independent and captivating tale. The testimony to how effective this was is the simple fact that Kane is still wrestling as Kane all these many moons later. It's a credit to the character, certainly, but also an example of how fans will buy in if the tale is good enough. The idea that The Undertaker's evil brother would have all the tools to beat him was a fanciful one, but well told, and naturally didn't work out. Undertaker and his streak had at this point become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so we experienced the head-scratching absurdity of Undertaker leading his Ministry of Darkness against Vince's evil Corporation, complete with a faux lynching of the Big Boss Man in a steel cage. That all of that led to the two groups actually joining together under Vince himself would be shockingly questionable if one removed all knowledge of the elder McMahon's love of the spotlight and the success of the rival nWo.
One blessing in this outlandish disguise, however, was the innate understanding of what this streak could be. Not simply a chance to plant Taker against whichever latest brute came a-calling, but an opportunity to cement his legend and add to the status of WrestleMania in one fell swoop. With WrestleMania X-Seven came a (mostly) uninterrupted run of better caliber opposition. It also started a sequence where much of what was happening in the company itself had quite a lot to do with the Streak matches, to the benefit of everyone. Triple H lost to Taker in an Attitude-driven storyline which featured abductions, blood and guts, and sledgehammers. Fellow Evolution member and wrestling legend Ric Flair was next, but perhaps lost in that match itself (not that memorable in the twilight of Naitch's most excellent career) was the implications of the brand split and what that meant to WWE's product for the next decade.
For completion purposes, next year's ill-fated decision to pair Undertaker with Nathan Jones ended up being the first time in his career where The Big Show was booked to get help in a handicap match and still lose is still included, but is an abrupt (fortunately) pit stop on the streak's journey. Another match against erstwhile frenemy Kane and battles with upstart main eventer Randy Orton and perennial powerhouse Mark Henry would further push this storyline into the stuff of legend. No more was this an excuse to spend some cash on a fog machine entrance and serve up whatever lunkhead was available; no, this was now a full-fledged movement built on anticipation and expectation. It wouldn't always (ever?) be the best match on the card at this point, but it would be an event for certain.
Taker's Royal Rumble win and ensuing World Title victory over Batista made clear that he was officially a force to be reckoned with at the top of the card on wrestling's biggest day. The need to top that became the proverbial shopping for the person who has everything already. Taker would defeat Edge in similar fashion for the belt as well the following year, and then we entered "deity" status to quote Paul Heyman last night as he battled with Shawn Michaels in two of the best matches ever had by professional wrestlers in the modern era. Amazingly, the sequel trumped the already stellar original, producing the moment where Michaels slaps the Undertaker in an effort to get him to (successfully) finish the job in a match full of equal parts highspots and higher emotions. Potent stuff.
Those sequels led to Taker rekindling his feud with Triple H and putting on two more classics at WrestleMania, the first being No-Holds Barred and the second being inside Hell in a Cell and reinstituting Shawn Michaels as referee to further the plot. Both of these tilts were exceptionally brutal to watch, endlessly physical and violent. The first resulted in Undertaker winning but not even leaving the ring area under his own power. The second closed the book on a series of incredible Mania matches by having HHH & Shawn help the victorious Taker to the locker room. Amazingly, this sequence of matches that started as an excuse to serve squash to a unique character had grown into a chance for the top guys in the business to take their turn seeking and losing the spotlight with catastrophically fantastic results.
Last year's battle with CM Punk continued the tradition of mixing emotion with raw physicality, as the untimely demise of Paul Bearer and the machinations of Paul Heyman provided a perfect palette for the two combatants to paint red with blood. Even in this day and age of PG, indelible moments were left for all fans, such as Punk launching himself Savage-style with an elbow through the announce table. Undertaker had to win again, but maybe he wouldn't. Punk had the moxie and the tactics to get it done, but he couldn't possibly. That constant tug-of-war inside the hearts and minds of the viewing audience is exactly what there isn't enough of in wrestling. The Punch and Judy show gimmick had grown into its own ethos. The gimmick was no longer a gimmick.
When Brock Lesnar faces the Undertaker this year, it won't be fresh in the sense that the two men haven't crossed paths before. It also won't be fresh in the sense that once again we'll have the same ominous indicators that we have finally found the appropriate opponent to end this saga, despite all outstanding evidence to the contrary. But it will be fresh in the sense that the choice of opponent is once again a high-octane, big-ticket performer who possesses the brutality and the raw tools to make this a car crash you can't look away from. No Giant Gonzalez chloroform rags to be found this time around. Lesnar and Taker are all about the magnanimity and pageantry of the event, and therefore it's the perfect choice to have us ask the same questions all over again in a fresh way.
There are very few things we can write about as wrestling fans that give us the ability to discuss the "old school" tenets of the business while mixing in what's cool and current, and have both houses agree that it's wicked good. Undertaker's unparalleled and remarkable streak is one of those things. It takes all of the chicanery and silliness that purists sniff at and frown upon and mixes it thoroughly with the bombast and belligerence that modern viewers expect. It's the circus and the opera all in one. It's mythology and comic books. It's caviar and cheesesteak. Whatever else may happen at the WWE's biggest event, one thing is certain: Undertaker's latest streak match will blow you away, and it will cause you to ask those same nagging questions all over again. There is magic in that.