As I think about what it was like watching The Undertaker, the character, lose his first Wrestlemania match in 22 tries, I began to sympathize for Mark Calaway, the man playing the role of The Undertaker. Calaway, who turned 49 two weeks ago Monday, looked every bit of Muhammad Ali to Brock Lesnar’s Larry Holmes in 1980 at Wrestlemania this past Sunday, and when Lesnar connected on his third F-5 of the match, the referee did something 21 others couldn’t do over the years – count Taker’s shoulders down 1, 2, 3.
Days later, while wrestling fans still mourned the end of one of the greatest streaks in the sport, The Ultimate Warrior, born James Brian Hellwig, collapsed while walking to a car with his wife in Arizona and passed away at the age of 54. The Warrior had just healed a decade-plus long feud with World Wrestling Entertainment and Vince McMahon, earning induction into the WWE’s Hall of Fame this past weekend.
For these two men, Mark Calaway and Jim Hellwig, the respective ends of their legacies are met with viewpoints, but the same overwhelming sentiment of sadness that physically and spiritually, these two men will be no more.
Mark Calaway and Jim Hellwig briefly crossed paths in 1991 when they had a brief feud in the World Wrestling Federation at that time, which included the 6’10, 300-pound Undertaker stuffing the 6’2, 260 pound Warrior in a casket. The Warrior would go on to have a disjointed career, pissing off promoters and fellow competitors for years while The Undertaker, enjoyed a long career filled with respect and admiration across the board.
The Dead Man, as Taker is affectionately known, had competed in 21 Wrestlemanias before Sunday night, winning each one. However, something wasn’t right early in the match as Lesnar had Taker on the ropes, looking glassy eyed and punch drunk, something unusual for a character with a supernatural reputation. After that 3rd F-5 (a vicious tornado like move in which Lesnar holds his opponent on his shoulders and spins him face first to the canvas), the referee’s count reached three, the bell rang…and time stopped. I saw 24 years of a man’s career pass before my eyes and I was angry.
Angry that the streak ended, angry that it was Brock Lesnar, angry at the ref for counting three. Then I remembered Mark Calaway has a family – one college-aged son and three young daughters. He knew the end was coming and the streak was going to end on his terms – why not now? Why not when you’ve given all you can to the wrestling world and still have more to give to your family?
Jim Hellwig’s story ends much different and ultimately, much more tragically. After being at odds with Vince McMahon and WWE since the mid-90s, the Warrior and WWE closed the wedge between them with the Warrior’s induction to the Hall of Fame, a DVD told in his own words and a job as special ambassador. The Ultimate Warrior appeared on Monday Night Raw, saying that long after the man is gone, the people who gave him the chance to be the wild and crazy character on and off screen that he was for so many years would be his legacy and that he was grateful for them. The next day he died outside of a hotel in Arizona, walking with his wife to their vehicle.
Wrestling is a weird thing to a lot of people. Few can understand why adult men, in their 20s and otherwise (I fall into the latter) can follow a world where sports meets script, where entertainment and fantasy merge with athletic prowess. It happens. These performers become legends to us for their skills, their personalities and their achievements. However, when the bells rings for the final time and the lights go out in the arena, they’re human just like you and I. Mark Calaway goes home to his family. Jim Hellwig’s family is left to mourn the loss of their loved one.
But wrestling fans can and should be grateful that both of these men put on these masks and entertained us for many years all while remembering that even the biggest and the baddest have to know when they’ve run their race.
The Undertaker and the family of The Ultimate Warrior can be proud of knowing they ran their races better than anyone else for a long time.