The Undertaker returns to the grandest stage in sports-entertainment this weekend to take on one of the best talents in the world in AJ Styles as debates continue to rage on over when the proper WrestleMania moment was for the 55-year-old future WWE Hall of Famer to have stepped aside from in-ring competition. Each high-profile WrestleMania appearance fuels the speculation that it could be the last, and the WrestleMania 36 showdown with Styles is no different.
With the global coronavirus pandemic forcing WrestleMania 36 to take place inside the surreal setting of an empty WWE Performance Center in Orlando, however, suddenly the answer to whether this should be the final match in The Undertaker's career feels much more complicated.
WrestleMania and The Undertaker will forever be linked, and with good reason. Storytelling early in his career worked out in a way where -- through sheer coincidence more than long-term planning -- he had built an undefeated record on the biggest stage in wrestling annually. That record transformed from a simple footnote to becoming "The Streak" at WrestleMania 21, turning Undertaker's success into a primary focus of the event up until WrestleMania 30 when Brock Lensar added the first blemish.
That moment, Lesnar pinning The Undertaker in front of a stunned-into-silence Superdome crowd in New Orleans, has become as iconic as any in his legacy. It was also one of the best chances for The Undertaker to gracefully exit in-ring competition. He was pushing 50 and his work was beginning to provide evidence of the aging. The streak was dead as well, taking away the most special aspect remaining of the legendary character. Still, "The Deadman" continued to push ahead as a part-time player in WWE.
At WrestleMania 33 in 2017, another ideal retirement opportunity presented itself when The Undertaker suffered his second WrestleMania loss, this time coming up short against current top company star Roman Reigns. Again, a man positioned as the future of the promotion had been put over The Undertaker on the grandest stage of all. This time, it seemed as if The Undertaker knew the time was right to hang up his boots and move along. Leaving his gloves, hat and coat in the center of the ring, he walked off into the storm in a bit of powerful imagery.
The Undertaker's match with Reigns in Orlando was another instance where it was clear how little he had left in the tank. Fifty-two years old and working through a bad hip, he struggled through 23 minutes with Reigns in the main event of the night. To be fair, it was probably too much to ask, but the assumed retirement erased much of the ill feelings, instead providing a moment to appreciate one of the all-time greats.
Except ... it wasn't a retirement at all.
He would return at WrestleMania 34 in 2018 to quickly defeat John Cena. Again, the timing could have been right for The Undertaker to retire, having gone out on top with a WrestleMania win over a fellow legend. But the lure of big money to participate in WWE's cards from Saudi Arabia kept him coming back again and again.
Three years after leaving his hat in the ring on the heels of the loss to Reigns, The Undertaker is still going, set to battle Styles in a "boneyard match" at WrestleMania 36. This after matches that include last year's Super ShowDown disaster in Saudi Arabia where he and Goldberg fumbled their way though less than 10 minutes of action, looking every bit their combined 100-plus years of age.
The Undertaker vs. Styles will have one thing working in its favor, though. While WrestleMania 36 will air over two nights on Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5, the event was pre-taped in the empty WWE Performance Center. With no live crowd, the ability to take breaks if needed and the chance to edit or even repeat rough spots in the match, The Undertaker's physical limitations will play far less of a role than if it had happened at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa as initially planned. In fact, there's a strong possibility the nature of the match sets up the best Undertaker match fans have seen in years.
The downside to it all is that this can't be it for the illustrious career. While it's well past time for one of the most iconic figures in WWE history to walk away, The Undertaker's career can only appropriately end in a proper WrestleMania stadium setting, with a sea of fans helping to provide a true sendoff to be remembered forever. To have it end in a pre-taped gimmick match sans ardent fans would simply feel wrong.
So the career of "The Deadman" must march on -- against all logic and good sense, The Undertaker must sporadically pop up on WWE television for another year, charging toward one last battle at WrestleMania 37 next year in Los Angeles.
Wrestling fans may not want to see it happen, but they also need it to happen. The Undertaker is WrestleMania, and this year is WrestleMania in name only and no place for one last ride.