Dust coats most of the sports records that have stood the test of time. It's that durability, in fact, that sustains them, gives them meaning and life beyond their own era.
Think Joe DiMaggio's famed 56-game hitting streak, a feat now more than 70 years old.
Think Wilt Chamberlain, whose 100 points in a single game is even more legendary now than it was in 1962.
Think The Undertaker, 21-0 on the Grandest Stage of Them All: WrestleMania. In its own way that's a streak worthy of a special place in history because of, not in spite of, wrestling's status as pseudo-sport. In many ways that makes it even more impressive, not less.
Contemporary professional wrestling, after all, is a strange place to look for that kind of groundbreaking accomplishment. For permanence of any kind, at that. Since Vince McMahon's WWE made cable television the centerpiece of his empire, wrestling has become the least substantial of all sports, with championships and titles changing in the blink of eye, slave to the ratings gods.
In the 1960s and '70s, Bruno Sammartino held the World Championship for seven years, eight months and one day. On almost every one of those days (2,803 of them for those keeping count), he pulled on his trunks, his wrestling boots and went to work. Only when he decided enough was enough, that he needed a break, did anyone even consider replacing him as champion.
It was a decision not taken lightly.
Fast forward to 2009, where the belt changed hands nine times in a single calendar year. No one reign lasted more than Randy Orton's 90 days. Nothing much matters in contemporary wrestling's blink-and-you-missed-it culture.
Except The Undertaker. Except WrestleMania. In a world full of the fleeting, some things still stand the test of time.
In the Beginning
Before there was a WrestleMania streak, before there was an Undertaker even, there was "Mean" Mark Callous. Managed by Paul Heyman, who will be in his opponent Brock Lesnar's corner at WrestleMania 30 this Saturday in New Orleans, Callous was physically imposing, amazingly gifted and somehow, despite that, going nowhere fast.
In 1990, after losing clean to Lex Luger for the United States Heavyweight title, Callous was given his release.
"What happened in WCW is the same thing that happened there with a variety of talent," Heyman told Bleacher Report. "WCW was far too concerned with existing star power and investing in those that already had equity in their names. They had no vision of brand or talent development.
"The key to WWE's success and longevity is that they are, as modern and as relevant as the company may be in modern social media and platforms and contemporary distribution, the company is still built around old-school promotion. Who are these two fighters? Why are they wrestling? And why should I pay to see it? In order to answer those three questions you have to build up the talent. And you can't just build up talent that has equity in their names. You have to make new stars. And that's the mantra that has always worked best in any period that you could call the glory days."
What happened next was fairly amazing. Befriended by Hulk Hogan on the set of the movie Suburban Commando, the former "Mean Mark" soon found himself in a meeting with one Vince McMahon. Soon thereafter, a new character emerged on WWE television.
Straight out of a dime-store western with his extra-wide Stetson hat, gray striped tie and oversized trench coat, the original Undertaker appeared less an undertaker and more a walking corpse. Impervious to pain, pasty and supernatural in origin, the character was immediately an anachronism. Hogan's brand of cartoon wrestling was already beginning to fade. Reality television was fast approaching. The Undertaker shouldn't have succeeded. Somehow, perhaps through power of will alone, it did.
"I don't think it was as much the character as it was the man behind the character," Heyman said. "I think The Undertaker is, much like Brock Lesnar, a once-in-a-lifetime wrestler, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete and a once-in-a-lifetime performer. You can't just put somebody in that slot. You need someone who can own up to the role and someone who makes the role theirs, who walks in the skin of the character. When that gels, when the athlete and the performer come together, then you have someone who is truly box office. This is not something that someone else could have accomplished. You couldn't have given that name and that character to anybody else—they would have never survived."
It started with a whimper at WrestleMania VII. Aging superstar Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka wasn't capable at that point of a good match, let alone a great one. The match's one great high spot, a crossbody Undertaker was supposed to catch and turn into his now-iconic Tombstone, was botched. History, it turns out, is not always pretty.
There were good times and bad on the way to winning 21 consecutive matches. His match with Giant Gonzalez, for example, was one of the worst in WrestleMania history. A match with Diesel, in turn, was surprisingly competent, a well-told story that moved at a crisp pace. But nothing about any of it felt special.
By WrestleMania 13, however, the WWE had an inkling of what it had. For the first time announcer Jim Ross mentioned the streak, noting that the Deadman had never lost at WrestleMania. Four years later, at WrestleMania 17, his yearly match had become more than midcard fodder.
Ever since he pinned Triple H's shoulders to the mat with the Last Ride, the match has been a showcase of sorts. No matter where he was on the card or what was going on in the promotion, one thing was a given: The Undertaker's match at WrestleMania was going to be something special.
The Undertaker has beaten legends, men like Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair, and he's made them, giving the rub to rising stars like Randy Orton, Edge and Batista. Each, arguably, stole the show. Now it's Brock Lesnar's turn to make history. The former UFC and WWE champion has done everything you can do in the combat sports arena.
Everything except face The Undertaker at WrestleMania.
"I think it's more than special," Heyman said. "I'm very blessed. I get the best seat in the house for the match that has the most historical significance and the longest-ranging ramifications in terms of what happens after the match is over. This is Brock Lesnar's chance to truly step into immortality. From my perspective it's a match that Brock Lesnar doesn't have to win but that The Undertaker must not lose."
In some ways the streak itself has made putting together an epic match worthy of it next to impossible. Pro wrestling is built on drama. And, honestly, how much drama can there be when one man is all but guaranteed to win?
That has all changed this year. Approaching his 50th birthday, The Undertaker is all but done physically. He's been absent the entire year, wrestling just a single time since last year's WrestleMania win over CM Punk. His body may not be capable of delivering what this single match has to deliver, even just once a year.
It may be time for a change. And, while most fans seem to want him to ride off into the sunset, undefeated streak intact, Heyman argues that sports doesn't work that way.
"The New York Yankees won five straight World Series. The Chicago Bulls three-peated in the NBA Finals. Those are phenomenal feats that can never be taken away from those teams," he said. "Why would anybody think that because Brock Lesnar conquered the streak it takes away from the historical significance that was 21-0 for The Undertaker?
"When Brock Lesnar defeats The Undertaker at WrestleMania, it will not trivialize nor negate or minimize the magnitude of the accomplishment that is 21 victories. Brock Lesnar will never amass 21 victories at WrestleMania. He'll be too old. John Cena is never going to get to 21 in a row. They named the Battle Royal after Andre the Giant. He couldn't get three in a row.
"So I cannot agree with the assessment that anything must go on in perpetuity. And The Undertaker's undefeated streak, if it's stopped at 21, does not take away from the enormity of those 21 consecutive victories."
It's a compelling case, but one I'm not sure I can buy. The streak is bigger than Lesnar and bigger than The Undertaker himself. Yes, DiMaggio eventually failed to get a hit, bringing his hallowed hit streak to an end. But, in wrestling, someone writes the stories. There's no need to be limited by the confines of reality. The Undertaker can go out a winner.
I hope he does.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.
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