Few professional wrestlers understand retirement better than Shawn Michaels.
Michaels famously stepped away from wrestling following his heart-stopping “Career vs. Streak” match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania 26. Despite numerous offers for big paydays and WrestleMania return matches, Michaels appeared to be an outlier as the one wrestler who walked away at the top of his profession and refused to tarnish his magnificent closing act.
But most professional athletes, if they are still capable of performing, ultimately return. And that is exactly what Michaels did, eight years later, in a tag match with Triple H against The Undertaker and Kane.
A driving narrative of the Last Ride documentary is The Undertaker coming to terms with the end of his career. Unlike Michaels, he has been unable to walk away, constantly lured back into the ring with the flirtation of another big match and moment. The Undertaker’s honesty and self-criticism are a big part of what made chapter three of the doc, which is available beginning at 10 a.m. ET Sunday on the WWE Network, so compelling.
The Undertaker admitted that he was disappointed with his WrestleMania 34 match against John Cena. Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the match that was presented in last week’s episode, ’Taker disclosed that wrestling Cena in a match that didn’t even crack three minutes left him with a hollow feeling. Taker reveals that he craves one more big, perfect moment—but his words are juxtaposed by his actions, as he continues to return to the ring for matches that do not fit that description.
This is the shortest episode of the series yet at 46 minutes, but the “End of an Era” installment did an outstanding job of advancing the narrative. We see glimpses of The Undertaker as a father, which viewers never witnessed in the Michael Jordan Last Dance series on ESPN. Following WrestleMania 34, WWE creative seems to settle in on the right way to use The Undertaker: pair him with younger talent that can carry the bulk of the work in his matches. That is on display in this episode with his Casket Match against Rusev at April 2018’s Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia, as well as in a six-man tag with Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman against Kevin Owens, Elias and Baron Corbin at a memorable Madison Square Garden house show that July. Taker soaked up every moment at the MSG show, making it appear as though that was his farewell to wrestling’s most famed arena.
“It’s still special,” remarks The Undertaker at MSG. “When it’s not special anymore, it’s time to walk away.”
Those, of course, were words he did not heed.
In search of that one final effervescent performance, viewers are treated to a look back at The Undertaker’s highlight reel. The ones that resonate are the matches with “The Heartbreak Kid,” which include the first-ever “Hell in a Cell” match from October 1998 and the back-to-back WrestleMania matches in 2009 and 2010.
Unlike Triple H, who shares that The Undertaker was a groomsman in his wedding, Michaels and Taker had a relationship better described as “co-existing” rather than a friendship. That changed over the course of a decade-and-a-half, but regardless of their personal affinity for each other, the chemistry between the two was undeniable. Michaels had endless personality and cockiness, perfectly opposed by Taker’s no-nonsense style.
Although wrestling may be timeless, wrestlers are not.
Even though Michaels and The Undertaker were perfect foils for one another, age and circumstance were too overwhelming to overcome in their 2018 tag match in Saudi Arabia. This was Michaels’ return to the ring for the first time since WrestleMania 26, teaming with Triple H against The Undertaker and Kane, and the match was a massive disappointment. Triple H suffered a brutal injury, tearing his pectoral muscle, and Michaels was forced to carry the action in a match that lasted over 27 minutes, far too long for Taker and Kane at that point in their careers.
Following the match, we hear the disappointment directly from the legends involved. The real low point of The Undertaker’s career had yet to occur, but would soon take place back in Saudi Arabia in a disastrous affair against Goldberg. That will be covered in next week’s episode, as the story leads us on a journey to Taker’s throwback performance this past WrestleMania against AJ Styles.
Chapter 3 was the most compelling episode so far of the series, capturing The Undertaker’s chase for something he once possessed but may never again find.