Roman Reigns vs The Undertaker
Wrestlemania 33, 2nd April 2017
It’s the main event and Jim Ross is commentating, so everyone knows what’s going to happen. Four, five, however many hours into the biggest show of the year we are, everybody looks at each other to say “Shit, this is it.” That’s how it was at my place, anyway.
It starts with a flurry of strikes. Taker dumps Roman out of the ring twice, staring him down with contempt. The words “It’s still my yard!” get a huge cheer from the crowd – and so, for that matter, does any bit of offence. Let’s face it – some might enjoy seeing Roman take punishment, but this crowd is clinging onto anything that might mean Taker doesn’t have to lose.
The first half isn’t bad: Taker gets his signature moves in, and there’s a great moment when Roman goes to dropkick him and gets punched out of the air. But after a huge spear through an announce table, Taker doesn’t recover.
The chairs come in when he really starts to go red. There’s a hideous botch where Taker can’t bend enough to finish a series of counters into Hell’s Gate. Finally, a series of spears and Superman Punches culminates when Taker tries to sit up, but is forced down again. If you’re not sad by now, you should be.
Roman disappears quickly after getting the pin, and it’s worth pointing out that he did a fantastic job with this match for which he’ll never get any credit from the fans. The crowd chants “Thank you, Taker” as the Deadman slowly removes everything that made him himself: the coat, the hat, the tape from his wrists. He starts his long road back to the curtain, and I start to cry.
How it defined 2017:
The word ‘legend’ is overused these days, but the mythical Deadman who became one of the most iconic characters in professional wrestling history is exactly that. In some ways, his retirement is on a par with that of Manami Toyota, who also hung up her boots this year. Both have been involved in some of the greatest matches of all time. Both have inspired countless wrestlers to start taking bumps at a training school, and both have lured in new fans for decades.
Manami’s retirement, however, was at least fun. The format and the styles of each match worked around her loss of some stamina over the years. She played to her strengths and went out in a way that, sad as it was, could at least be enjoyed. Taker tried to have a Wrestlemania main event match, and it just doesn’t work for him anymore. It doesn’t even suit his opponent. Reigns’ overly long and slow match against Triple H at the previous Wrestlemania did nobody any favours, yet nobody seems to have learned from that mistake.
The manner of Taker’s retirement encapsulates many of the Fed’s long-term problems. He has come back year after year because essentially, WWE needs him. There is no new icon to take his place. With John Cena likely paring back his schedule over the next couple of years, the company still relies on part-timers and 40-something veterans to sell out big events. The only wrestler into whom any long-term investment seems to have been made is Roman Reigns, and that hasn’t always gone that well.
How many coronations does he need? Reigns is already a made man in WWE, in spite of the gaggle of fanboys who seem determined to hate him as much as they hate Cena. Even if you want to win them over for some reason, how does retiring the fucking Undertaker make him more likeable?
Taker’s retirement is a watershed moment in American wrestling. But having him wrestle for years too long and retire in a disappointing match against the only guy for whom you seem to have any long-term plans sums up WWE’s year perfectly.
I said it at the time and I’ll say it now: Taker should have retired at Wrestlemania 30. His match against Brock Lesnar wasn’t great by any stretch (and Taker got a concussion early on), but that was where it should have ended. Taker had been working one match a year for a while by that point because The Streak basically was Wrestlemania – and for better or worse, it had come to define him too.
I understand the impulse to come back to go out on a high, but somebody should have intervened by 2017. Eventually, Taker’s much better SummerSlam matches against Lesnar went some way to exorcising the ghost of Mania 30, but the last truly great Streak match was at Mania 29. Since then, the Deadman’s in-ring work has deteriorated alongside his health and fitness. I never wanted to see him hurt himself for my benefit, but I’ve often feared that he might.
This match was difficult to watch, especially for someone like me who has idolised Taker for decades. It can’t have been easy for him, either, knowing that his final match could not hit the heights he was aiming for. But I’m mad at WWE for enabling his return year after year, long past the point when he shouldn’t have been wrestling, because they haven’t built any stars who can replace him as a draw.
Do better, Vince.