Vive La Rai, Le Rai Est Mort*
New Orleans, Louisiana. WrestleMania 30. 21-1: The Streak is over.
For many wrestling fans, ending The Undertaker’s 21-match winning streak at WrestleMania was shocking, perhaps even uncalled for. Just before that important client meeting half a world away, I was closely monitoring WrestleMania, expecting one of my childhood heroes – no, my childhood hero – to vanquish the cocky, arrogant Beast Incarnate called Brock Lesnar. It didn’t happen. After a battering and a bruising that involved finisher after finisher, kickout after kickout, The Undertaker – The Lord of Darkness, The Phenom – fell to Brock’s F5. 1,2,3. 21-1: The Streak is over.
Needless to say, on this side of the world, I was a bit more fired up for a pitch than I usually am.
I thought about it, watching the match over and over, letting the defeat of The Undertaker sink in and in the hope that somehow it makes sense. On the one hand, The Undertaker isn’t a young man anymore. It was a 49-year-old seven-time world champion fighting a 36-year-old three-time world champion and former UFC Heavyweight Champion. On the other hand, for smart fans, maybe this is The Undertaker’s last match. For a man who has been so protective of professional wrestling, losing and passing the torch is the best way to preserve the integrity of the business.
After watching all 25 minutes of the match over and over again, and letting all that sink in, I see it a bit differently now.
Roland Barthes said it best: “Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks.” The match was about suffering. The match was about life and death.
The Undertaker is the personification of Death. In 21 different matches all through the years, The Undertaker has vanquished them all. He killed them: the metaphor of The End clear in the caskets that decorated the stage as he entered the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The chapters in the saga of professional wrestling always end at WrestleMania, and some of the greatest – if not the greatest – met their end (or at least the denouement) face-to-face with The Undertaker at WrestleMania.
Brock Lesnar, though, personifies Life: vitality, the primal and perhaps even the evolutionary. Brock Lesnar is not the man who vanquishes his foes, but he conquers them. He is The Beast who represents the perfect fighter, professional wrestler, ass-kicker. Yet the life that flows through Brock Lesnar is not one tethered to the mortal coil. It is not one to stop the show, not to be a 16-time world champion, not to be the King of Kings, and not to be the “Best in the World” either. It is one with the single-minded purpose of bringing in the pain along with the victory.
If anything, Brock Lesnar’s win is a throwback to the spectacle: to the days of Hulk Hogan, the late great Ultimate Warrior, the late great “Macho Man” Randy Savage. This “reality era” of professional wrestling does away with the outlandish caricatures of wrestling characters, but reinforces the tragic masks of Barthes’s musings in the carnival.
In the spectacular mythology of professional wrestling, that match was the victory of Life over Death. In a spectacle that feeds and preys and nourishes and entertains us based on our rawest fears and anxieties, Life defeated Death. But it is not the life of mere mortals like ourselves that finally conquered Death: it is Life at its most raw, its most base, the kind that comes with conditioning and strength that we can only aspire for and perhaps seriously injure ourselves trying to achieve. It is vitality like we’ve never seen before: unstoppable, yet inhuman.
Tragic masks, yet at the same time, grotesque. It was the Beast shedding its mortal coil, looking Death in the eye, and conquering it. The reality of life is that we fear Death most of all. We rely on so many things to arrest it, to keep it from happening. If life were that allegory, to defeat Death is the ultimate triumph of Life. And yet the conquest of Death is not without its sense of irony: in defeating the inevitable, anything less than the grotesque is insufficient.
It takes a certain grotesque distortion of our mortal selves to defeat Death: to be bigger, to be stronger, and oftentimes requires the kind of drive that enables us to shed what makes us fragile, vulnerable, and human. Death can be vanquished, even at the expense of our humanity. To defeat Death, you have to be inhuman.
I think that’s the story of Undertaker and Brock Lesnar on that night The Streak was broken.
* – Excuse the bad French, and the homage to Enigma.