Wrestling at 47: Comparing the Undertaker to Ric Flair and Other Veterans
WARNING: This is a long, long article.
In recent years, the topic of when it is best for a professional wrestler to retire has been a hot topic. Why only of late?
Well, until the Hulk Hogan era, wrestling did not have superstars in the same way it does today. Sure, you had wrestlers famed within wrestling circles, but things were more about wrestling, not as significantly about larger than life cartoon characters.
Before then, greater lengths were made to make wrestling appear credible and realistic.
One long-term effect of that is men who are popular for their persona and mic skills as opposed to wrestling ability, and able to remain popular when past their best. The greater attention given to storytelling has had an impact too, as a veteran wrestler might improve as a storyteller even as they slow down.
In the last decade, many of those wrestlers have finally reached the age when their retirement has become a topic of debate. Ric Flair was teasing us with his retirement as long ago as the mid 1990s, and he is still—albeit infrequently—still with us.
By far the most hotly debated topic is when The Undertaker should retire however, as well as when he will opt to do so.
The Undertaker has gone down an unusual route, of wrestling a five-star match once a year, apparently allowing him to extend his career beyond what he would be able to do if he was wrestling on a full-time basis. Bodies age at different rates, especially in a business where some people take more injuries than others. That being said, history is there to be learned to, and comparisons are interesting to make.
Come WrestleMania 28, The Undertaker will be 47 years old. The topic of this slideshow, then, will be exploring the careers of other wrestlers who continued to compete at that age—focusing on what they were doing at that time, and what they have done subsequently. It may surprise you.
So many fans dread seeing Undertaker become "the next Ric Flair" if he stays in the ring for too many more years. At what stage does a wrestler become too old?
Entered the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 1980 (in NJPW) Age 26
Should Have Exited the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 2005 (in WWE) Age 52
Let's start with the man many think is in most dire need of retirement. Hogan's surgeries mean that he can barely take any bumps at this point in his career, and many fans observe that the Hulkster was hardly a good wrestler in the first place, merely a charismatic showman, and that he needs to stop relying on that now what little skill he had has diminished.
At age 47, it was August of 2000, a month after Hogan's infamous argument with Vince Russo at that year's incarnation of WCW's Bash at the Beach.
Arguably, the situation was not Hogan's fault—Russo instructed Jeff Jarrett to lie down and hand his World Title to Hogan. Russo and Hogan had an on-air argument about it, resulting in Hogan's departure from WCW.
Rather conveniently for Hogan, this meant he left the company as the company's situation went from bad to disastrous, allowing him to sit out the company's lowest period, making his return to the WWE much more impressive.
2002-2003 saw Hogan return to WWE, where Hulkamania had first run wild. The original NWO—Hogan, Hall and Nash—reformed to play havoc on the two top Attitude Era faces of the WWE—The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, leading to a tag-team match between the NWO and the WWE faces, and a WrestleMania main event between Hogan and The Rock.
That match alone justifies Hogan's continued wrestling past the age of 47—the promos were excellent, the Raw tag-team match-up was great, and the match itself was excellent, with the two men shaking hands in respect at the end. The clashing of eras, the passing of the torch, giving something back to the company he had quit—it was all rather symbolic and special.
Hogan entered the match as a heel, but crowd support was so great he left it as a face. Hogan then feuded with all of the top figures in the WWE one after the other—defeating Triple H to win the WWE's world title of the time, the Undisputed Championship, holding it for 28 days. Fittingly for the man who put the name WWF on the map, he was the last man to hold the world title before its change to WWE.
Subsequent feuds included The Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, a rematch with The Rock and another major WrestleMania match against Vince McMahon. Hogan also very briefly held the World Tag Team Championship—for the first time—with Edge.
Hogan vs. Lesnar saw Hogan take some serious damage, showing he was still in good condition, and when this was arguably where things started to go stale. WWE used the Mr. America gimmick as an attempt to keep the Hogan character—which had run its course, having turned face, gone toe-to-toe with the top men in the company reclaimed the Undisputed Championship and defeated Vince McMahon—and really, it was all a bit naff.
Seeing Hogan revisit his decades old feud with Roddy Piper was quite fun, but little else.
Hogan left to join TNA, but after setting up a feud with a promo, injuries meant he was uanble to, and he ultimately returned to WWE from 2005-2006. The most memorable parts of this period were Hogan's WWE Hall of Fame induction, brief tag team with Shawn Michaels and feuds with Shawn Michael.
Also of note was an episode of Raw which featured a truly star-filled tag-team match—Tyson Tomko, Chris Jericho and Christian vs. John Cena, Shawn Michaels and Hulk Hogan.
After a solid 2005, Hogan did little within WWE in 2006, and his WWE career wrapped up with a really awkward feud with Randy Orton, which attempted to sell Hogan's reality TV career and Orton's Legend Killer gimmick at the same time and simply did not work.
Following this, Hogan would embark on some poor one-off matches, his Hulkamania Tour of Australia (don't look it up, it's not pretty) before joining TNA. In TNA, he has proven he can still pull off promos, still garner a fan reaction at matches but also really can't wrestle and is very in touch with the sort of product desired by modern audiences.
There is still something of a place in wrestling for Hogan—if he would appear very rarely and take no behind the scenes role.
Entered the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 1975 (in NWA) Age 25
Should Have Exited the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 2009 (in WWE) Age 60
Ric Flair has built up a reputation as the man who will simply not retire. I would like to point out that arguably, he is semi-retired, as his role on TNA TV is more as an elder statesman, and he could remain in that role if he never wrestled another match (unlike, say, The Undertaker, whose role is built upon the idea of competing in the ring).
Considering his financial problems, I think it's unfair to call Ric the man who won't retire. He's the man who can't.
It was February 1996 when Flair turned 47. He had actually recently had one of his first "retirements" at this point, losing a retirement match in October of 1994 at the Halloween Havoc PPV.
Around this time he would feud with the New World Order, with his fellows of the Four Horsemen stable—and this was at a time when the NWO was still fresh and hot, let's remember. Remaining a top figure in WCW, Flair was their to the last—proving loyal to the company, delivering a memorable speech on the set of the last Nitro in March 2001.
I really quite liked Flair's WWE run—he first appeared as the co-owner of WWE, and then as the elder veteran in Evolution, forming a tag-team with their enforcer figure, Batista. Flair's smooth talking enough and looks good enough in a suit (unlike most wrestlers e.g. Triple H) made him an ideal fit for it, and it gave him an on-air role that did not require frequent competition.
This did change when he and Batista chased tag team gold, but then it was quite clear Batista was the muscle of the pairing and Flair was the brain.
The Evolution stable is often credited for helping get Batista and Randy Orton over, but it also succeeded in keeping Triple H's character interesting, and providing legitimate successors for The Four Horsemen. When Evolution fell apart, Flair had an excellent, brutal, and very well written feud with Triple H.
Following this, Flair kept his career fresh with a hardcore match vs. Mick Foley and a TLC match with Edge. Few thought a man of his age—as he entered his 60s—could participate in such matches and Flair disproved doubters. At this point though—after SummerSlam 2006 in August—none of Flair's feuds ever really seemed to work as effectively as past ones.
There was nothing strictly poor about this period in Flair's career, it was simply not a peak. Not enough to warrant retirement, but perhaps the WWE realised that it was unlikely Flair was going to rise to the top a final time, unless they did something special—resulting in his incredible final feud with Shawn Michaels.
Flair's ability to go in the ring was shocking given his age, but really the sense of finality was all that injected this period of Flair's career with excitement. Leaning on this so much, it should have been obvious Flair's time was passing.
However, returning to the authority role which I had said worked so well for Flair, as an on air "character" but not a wrestler per-se, Flair's occasional appearances remained interesting.
Unlike Hogan, who left WWE after a fairly boring 2006 and a pointless 2007 (really, a run-in in a match between Hornswaggle and The Great Khali is Hogan's final WWE moment?!), Flair didn't make any mistakes in the build up to his final exit from WWE in June of 2009.
This is where I'm indecisive; the Hulkamania Tour was as bad for Flair as it was for Hogan, but after that...I like what Flair does when he doesn't wrestle. He's still in good enough shape to handle getting a beat-down or to fight back when someone jumps him, but he should not be competing in matches. Rather like Hogan, I think Flair has a broad enough array of talents that he could serve a purpose in TNA, but he isn't.
So we'll say his departure from WWE marked the death knell of his career—and I hate to say leaving WWE kills a career, but in this case it did, WWE was the only company that had a clue how to handle Flair—they are an entertainment company, and know what to do with a man who isn't a wrestler anymore, but still an entertainer.
Entered the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 1980 (in WWE) Age 30
Should Have Exited the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 2005 (in WWE) Age 57
Sgt. Slaughter, like Booker T, arrived in the game rather late, capturing his only WWE Championship at the 1991 Royal Rumble, at the age of 42, holding it for just over two months.
His full-time career concluded in late 1992. Returning in 1997, he transitioned to an authority role/"on air personality", maintaining the role for a few years.
His feud with D-Generation X foreshadowed the Austin/McMahon feud which would follow shortly afterwards. This makes Slaughter the first on our list to stop being a full-time superstar at the age we are talking about, 47, though he has continued to get involved in the ring.
In fact, I believe he actually participates in more matches than Hulk Hogan has since his last major WWE run concluded in mid-late 2005, but because his matches get less attention, people notice it a bit less.
Since then, Sgt. Slaughter has appeared off-and-on, with one memorable match being against Randy Orton in 2003—when Orton was at the peak of his Legend Killer gimmick. Though the match was fairly short, Slaughter's speed was impressive—speed is normally the one thing an older wrestler has to give up as a part of their arsenal.
It always surprises me how rapidly a wrestler can go from "still got it" to "not got it", and Slaughter is definitely a case of that. His match against Muhammad Hassan in January 2005 was good fun, though by the time he battled Nicky from Spirit Squad in October 2006, the man clearly had no place in the ring, even on a part time basis.
Dragging him out to get beaten by Jack Swagger in 2011 was awful...if the aim was to get Swagger over as a heel, a beat-down would have done the job. To have a match meant that Slaughter's feeble ring abilities were just too obvious.
It's also worth remembering Slaughter, generally, was not right at the top of the company in a Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair type way. So while he was obviously past his best by 2005, remember expectations were somewhat slower. A solid, convincing, interesting match is all that is required—not on the level of a "WrestleMania moment."
Entered the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 1993 (in WCW) Age 28
Should Not Exit the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 2012 (in WWE) Age 47
Booker T (I've always said him and Mr. T should have a feud regarding who is the real Mr. T) is 47 at present, and will be 48 by the time WrestleMania 28 arrives.
Booker is the ultimate example of preserving one's condition late into one's wrestling career—Booker T has rarely been injured, and generally when he is, it has not been severely.
Being right at the age being explored, there is little to explore here, really, but I suppose Booker T proves once again what the other men in this article all prove: 47 should not be considered ancient in wrestling.
Too often people mention that 40 is when a wrestler's career starts to head downhill, and by their mid-40s, they're done. Booker, like the others, shows that a high standard of "sports entertainment" can still be achieved at this point, provided the weighting has tipped from a focus on sport to entertainment at this stage.
Until the end of 2010, on the cusp of his 47th birthday, Booker was still a professional wrestler by trade. Subsequent to then, he has been a commentator for the WWE, on the SmackDown! brand.
However he continues to participate in matches, competing in the Royal Rumble (January 2011), on Raw (June 2011 vs. Jack Swagger), at TLC (December 2011, vs. Cody Rhodes), on SmackDown! (December 2011, January 2011—both times vs. Cody Rhodes), and another Royal Rumble (January 2012).
He's proven that his age is not yet a setback to performing at a high standard, and I'd doubt any future appearances in the coming year or so will be poor either.
Another thing worth noting with Booker T is that he entered the wrestling business relatively late. I think this shows that it is not so much age that is a factor in terms of ring ability, so much as how many years you spend inside a ring wearing your body down.
I would guess that if he keeps his appearances rare, he will continue to be able to get in the ring and not completely embarrass himself for many years to come, rather like Sgt. Slaughter.
I'd like to think that in five years, he could compete in a six minute match against an emerging heel, especially as if he put his opponent over, he could spend most of the match taking damage rather than dealing it out.
Entered the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling: 1987 (in NWA) Age 27
Should Not Exit the Spotlight of Professional Wrestling Just Yet: 2012 (in TNA) Age 52
Noticing a pattern here? A lot of these guys appeared relatively late in their lives. It's gotta make you wonder how long Randy Orton will be able to perform at the level he does, considering how early he turned wrestling into his regular, weekly gig. He hit 47 in March 2004, when he had just started working with TNA.
I would argue that again, Sting was not stale at this point, and was still a very adept performer. He had kept quiet after WCW Nitro stopped in March 2001, wrestling matches from November 2002 to May 2003 with World Wrestling All-Stars, before his arrival in TNA.
He signed a contract agreeing to appear on TNA four times by the end of 2003. Sting appeared once in 2004, before finally becoming a real fixture of TNA starting January 2006. This time off had allowed Sting's body to really rebuild—rather like when Shawn Michaels spent most of 1998-2002 out of action.
Has Sting still got it? It's quite hard to say. Unlike the others in this list, I'm really uncertain. It does not help that I am not a frequent TNA viewer.
The fact he managed to make his Bound for Glory match with Hulk Hogan watchable was impressive to many I think (and that match received a lot of attention in terms of YouTube viewing from a quick scan around), and whenever I watch his matches, I get the feeling I do with Slaughter—still alright, still not so slow it hurts, but...something's missing. The spark has gone. He's still just good enough; his most recent Insane Icon gimmick has proven interesting enough to justify keeping him on screen, and his matches just about hold up their side of the bargain.
But they need to keep the matches short, as I always find my attention wavers sometime around the halfway mark. I would say he only belongs in the ring for a very short time longer. I think that's why so many people hoped he'd wrestle Undertaker in 2011—it really is now or never.
He's been performing at this "adequate" level for some time now, sooner or later something has to give. And even if it doesn't—it will get stale soon. I know the Insane Icon gimmick did not win over as many fans as Sting was able to in the past, and that diminishing audience will only shrink with time. I don't think he can pull off yet another change in character at this point.
I think there are several conclusions to draw from this:
1. It's not how old you are, it's how long you've been wrestling for. The body doesn't shut down when you hit your mid 40s, necessarily.
2. The Undertaker could well last an awful lot longer, given how long it took for these men to finally reach the limits of how long they could keep on competing for. So could men like Kane, Christian, Rob Van Damn etc. While all are past their best, they should be able to maintain their present standards for some time longer.
3. It really makes you wonder how long men who joined the WWE in their early 20s will be able to maintain their a-game. Will cases of slowing down earlier, as has happened with Rey Mysterio, become frequent?
4. Shawn Michaels could still come back if he wanted to. I know some fans have argued that two years of added age since his last match mean that we can't be completely sure if he's match fit anymore.
5. Having done all this thought and reading, I'm a bit more convinced that Stone Cold could manage a final match.
This is a very long article, mostly about old men. I do not expect it to receive many reads, or much praise, as something this plodding and analytical is probably a bit geeky for a lot of people.
But if anyone wants me to write a follow-up, please inform me in the comments—I'd be willing to write a second piece.
I'd have to look into their careers to see what there is to write about, but I'm thinking Shawn Michaels, Dave Finlay, Ron Simmons, Jerry Lawler, Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper off the top of my head, as wrestlers who could have the latter years of their careers explored (I know HBK retired under 47, but given how many people clamour for his return I'd want to include him just because up until his retirement he had the perfect career for a wrestler in his 40s).