WWE: Undertaker, Jerry Lawler, Vince McMahon and the Retirement Question
Last April, the Undertaker competed in his 20th WrestleMania match to continue his supreme streak at the prestigious event. Last month, Jerry Lawler suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized just minutes after he competed in a match on live television. And just a couple of weeks ago, the chairman of the WWE, Vince McMahon, had a brutal physical encounter with the WWE Champion, CM Punk.
The ages of the trio are 47, 62 and 67, respectively.
In most sports, these ages would mean someone who is well past retirement. Professional wrestling is not most sports.
The Undertaker is still capable of delivering world-class matches at his age. "The Dead Man" is truly a living legend in his sport and has consistently been delivering quality performances, although he has only been present in one match a year for the past few years.
His undefeated WrestleMania streak (also known simply as "The Streak"—no offense, Bill Goldberg), which currently stands at 20-0, is an annual spectacle that only the greatest are allowed to challenge. And this once-a-year spectacle not only lends more than its fair share of PPV buys for the event, it also brings out quality that is seldom seen in other matches around the year.
The Undertaker's career is shrouded in as much mystery as his character. Because he does not use Twitter—(@WWEKane Congrats on becoming the tag team champions! family bbq Saturday? #teamhellno)— or give random interviews, his next move is always a surprise. While fans continue to expect his presence as the "Road to WrestleMania" begins, many realize that it is not something that can be taken for granted.
The Phenom is winding down, although he probably has a few excellent performances left in the bag. Whether he will end his undefeated streak at 20—there are rumors that he won't appear at WrestleMania next year—or be retired by an upstart at 20-1, wrestle until WrestleMania 30 or even past his 50th birthday is a subject of great debate.
In the end, there is one man who will decide when The Undertaker retires and his name is Mark Calaway. And he has earned his right to do so, as long as he does it leaving his body and his legacy unbroken. He wrestles one match a year and takes his time to recover, so there is no question that he treats his body with as much respect as he does the sport.
Jerry Lawler is a slightly touchier subject. Before he suffered a heart attack on live television a month ago, "The King" was not only the color commentator for Raw and WWE pay-per-views, he was also involved in a physical feud with the WWE Champion, CM Punk, which involved a steel-cage match the week before the scary incident. On top of that, he was actively competing in independent shows during the rest of the week.
Lawler, at 62, is a veteran of both the ring and the announcers' table. He is among the most decorated wrestlers in professional wrestling history and a name that garners respect in the business.
He obviously enjoys doing what he does, both with his words and with his body. But the situation on that fateful Monday night was heartrending, horrific and sad. While my immediate thoughts and concerns were with the well-being of The King, I couldn't help but feel a hint of irresponsibility on the part of WWE.
A lot of older men have appeared in the WWE ring. They have done everything from cut promos to take part in matches. But they have usually not had lengthy programs and have usually stayed backstage after the match.
The Lawler incident, scary enough as it is, is even scarier for what it could have been. Not only could the sport have lost yet another legend, but it could also have faced another wave of mass-media attacks—including, but not limited to, politically-targeted attacks—and even more stereotyping than there already is.
That scare should serve as a lesson, one of caution. A company that has banned "juicing" and several forms of attacks to the head in order to ensure the wellness of its performers should be equally concerned about how it uses its older talent. The risks can far outweigh the gains when a senior citizen is used in a feud to increase the emotional response of the fans.
Sometimes the emotion you end up drawing is not the one you intended, and that is something that the WWE corporate officials should understand.
Speaking of corporate officials...
It is not easy to take remedial steps in a company when the chairman is one of the offenders. Yes, the WWE saw a slump in ratings a few weeks back. Yes, Vincent Kennedy McMahon took it upon himself to give a "State of the WWE Address" in order to bring in viewers and rejuvenate the show.
But what he did next was shocking, if not original. He put himself in a match with WWE Champion CM Punk. And as if that was not enough, he even mentioned the Jerry Lawler incident in a backstage segment.
I am certainly not going to question McMahon's ability to perform, despite his age. (Nor am I going to question his ability to take punishment; he must still have some linear bruises thanks to those kendo-sticks.) The "fight"—which officially wasn't a match, as the bell never rang—was quite entertaining and the show did actually boost ratings, but it was still a move that was done out of recklessness.
Vince McMahon owns the company. The WWE is his crown jewel (his "precious," to use a Lord of the Rings term) and he is willing to do anything and everything to keep it successful. There is no doubt that Vince does not want to put his gift to the world in the risky hands of somebody else.
What there are concerns about is his senility and his desire to control every small aspect of the WWE. He not only travels to almost all the televised shows, he has the final say in every script as well. He does not care if he has to change the script three times on the day of the show, as long as he stands and delivers. And if it means getting his hands dirty, so be it!
Inspiring as his work ethic is, it is also unsettling. The fact that he (like his arch-nemesis, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin) doesn't trust anybody makes it harder for his company's officials to take action without consulting him. Unfortunately, McMahon himself seems more out of touch with the rest of the world as the years go by, making whimsical decisions that confuse a lot of fans.
Vince needs to start delegating his authority to other members of his corporate structure—for real. He needs to let them take a few risks and watch the show from his headquarters in Connecticut. He needs to tell his vice presidents to find quality writers and let them run the show without going through every script. Most importantly, he needs to learn to keep himself out of the ring and stop trying to turn physical punishment into financial success. Especially since his company has hired a young new onscreen COO to do that last bit.
Should the WWE have clear rules regarding in-ring retirement?
The retirement question is a harder question to answer than it is to ask. Yet it would be sensible for the WWE, as a company, to have a system in place to evaluate its aging talent and use them accordingly.
Perhaps it could be something simple like allowing the wrestlers to wrestle actively until 45, allowing for a few matches a year until age 55—where a clear retirement line should be drawn—and completely ceasing any form of physicality (including promos/interviews that get "physical") after age 65. Or it could be something tailored to fit individual performers, as long as due consideration is given to all aspects of the performance.
Note: This is my 50th article on Bleacher Report and I would like to thank everyone—including but not limited to B/R staff, editors, readers, commenters, other writers and the community leaders—for making me enjoy writing articles over the last seven months.
While the hours spent (both in "research" and in actual writing) were thoroughly enjoyable, the constraints imposed by changes in my personal and professional life have forced me to ask myself the very question this article raises. And with a heavy heart, I have come to the decision to conclude my current spell as a writer for Bleacher Report.
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