WWE fans had grown comfortable. It's a complacency that's written in our very souls, the reason why we return so often to the same memes, archetypes and basic tropes.
There's comfort in the familiar. And, for WWE fans, nothing was more familiar than the Undertaker's customary classic match at WrestleMania.
On any other night of the year, wrestling fans are trained to expect the unexpected. Like the NFL on Sunday, anyone can win on a given night. The only limits reside in the minds of the creative teams behind the madness.
But those rules didn't apply to the Undertaker. At least not at WrestleMania. He stepped into the ring at the WWE's annual spring extravaganza for the first time in 1991, besting Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka at WrestleMania 7. Twenty more wins followed, a streak unlike anything else ever seen in professional wrestling.
Hulk Hogan only managed three wins in a row before fighting Andre the Giant to a draw at WrestleMania 4. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin once managed a four-win streak before the Rock put his shoulders on the mat."Mr. WrestleMania" Shawn Michaels finished his Hall of Fame career with a record of just 6-11 on the grandest stage of them all.
No one has ever come close to doing what Undertaker did. It's likely no one ever will.
And that's why the faces in the crowd looked so glum when Brock Lesnar, the former Ultimate Fighting champion and part-time wrestler, pinned the Undertaker in a decidedly anti-climactic fashion after a decidedly lackluster match.
The WWE and the Undertaker had built a legend over 22 years in a grueling business. The amalgamation of luck, will and savvy allowed them to tell a very special story year after year. They entered a partnership with the audience. The tension was nonexistent—the expectations all too real.
The Undertaker, we were trained to understand, would win his match. How or why, those were the variables that made it interesting. The result, however, was never in question. Until, suddenly, the social compact between artist and audience was broken in brutal fashion.
75,000+ stunned...shocked...has the mat world imploded? The Streak dies....but the legend will live forever. #WrestleMania— Jim Ross (@JRsBBQ) April 7, 2014
Cue, then, the tears.
Grown men lost it after the match as Lesnar winked at the camera and manager Paul Heyman gloated in delightfully vile style. As the camera panned, the crowd's stunned silence took life in the anonymous pained expressions on the faces of average wrestling fans.
The streak was over. That was a fact. But stories, according to documentarian Ken Burns, are bigger than mere facts.
"What happens is fact, not truth," Burns once said. "Truth is what we think about what happens.”
The truth about the end of the streak? About 21-1?
According to wrestling fans, it was an unspeakable violation of trust. The outcry could be heard in the arena. It was louder still on Twitter. Conspiracies blossomed. The truth was harder to hear.
The Undertaker is 49 years old. The yearly tradition wrestling fans looked so forward to every year at WrestleMania was costing him dearly physically. The price for this match, for example, was a severe concussion. At this point it's essentially the only match he can manage to work a year. The Undertaker is tired. The Undertaker was ready. And the Undertaker wanted Brock Lesnar, because he had the legitimacy and gravitas to pull it off.
It was Lesnar's hand being raised that was particularly galling for some wrestling fans. He works on a handful of dates. When he left for UFC, he said horrible things about the business we all love. He doesn't feel like one of us.
Some fans wanted to see the streak ended by a promising young star, someone like Roman Reigns or even the babyface dujour Daniel Bryan. But neither could have shouldered the task.
There would be blowback on whoever eventually ended the streak. Like it or not, subconsciously or not, fans would punish whoever ended our yearly comfort food. There's pressure there for most—perhaps more than a mere mortal could handle.
The end needed a man like Lesnar, someone who doesn't need or want the crowd's love. Lesnar, in some ways, stands alone. He is of wrestling, but he is not wrestling. He's just Brock Lesnar, a superhuman beast of a man, one of the scariest human beings on the planet.
Was the time right to end the Undertaker's WrestleMania streak?
The streak wasn't meant to be stopped short by a conventional wrestler. It demanded something more, someone who, like the Undertaker, transcends the sport itself. It needed a man like Brock Lesnar.
Last week, the Undertaker's manager Heyman told me the streak wasn't long for this world. I didn't believe him. When word spread backstage before the show, however, others won't be so skeptical. Sportsbooks took a hit as the smart money came in for Lesnar, a huge underdog.
Like most of you, I wasn't ready for the streak to end. While Heyman made a powerful case that all great things in sports must end, the WWE was in a unique position to allow an old favorite to continue undefeated through both injury and the ravages of time.
It's too early to decide whether ending the streak was the right move or a colossal disaster. That's a tale that will be written in the months to come. But one thing is certain—WWE fans can never again safely assume they know how the story is going to end.