Bluffing only lasts so long—their body is their canvas and they deliver it live. HBK and The Undertaker are characters decades in the making, the ridiculous fiction tied up inextricably with the athletic and personal reality of the performers behind them. HBK and Undertaker can fight for fictional prestige in a way that other can’t, precisely because, in real life, they already have it.
The lack of the usual motivation also allowed the performers to expand the emotional variety of the wrestling narrative somewhat. Freed from the thuggish always-win obligations of the WWE’s regular cast of lunkheads, Shawn and Taker were able to present some new passions writ-large in the realm of overt spectacle. The initial display of respect for the veteran and long-lived Undertaker from Shawn was later backed up by a truly absorbing display of desperation, as HBK left a prone Undertaker outside of the ring, revived a knocked-out referee and pressed him into starting a count-out, dropping to his knees and desperately pleading that the Undertaker not make it back into the ring by the ten count and thus lose by disqualification.
It’s an oddly jarring and authentic moment in a realm dominated by endless and inexhaustible bravado: there’s no less-decisive win than a count-out, and such desperation for one would be inexcusable, if not outright heelish, from any of the usual lunkheads. Michaels plays desperation like it matters, in the process adding sincerity and even authentic fear of personal loss and defeat to the limited repertoire of wrestling emotions.
It’s a shift in texture also facilitated by an increased focus on the cinematic possibilities: Michaels and Taker play it large, but they play it to the cameras. Wrestling may be about making it clear for the back row, but one of the most dominant images of the match was clearly and skillfully executed for the screen: it looks like it’s just about over for HBK, as he’s caught by a Tombstone Piledriver, driven head-first into the mat, then pinned—a sure finisher, except that Michaels manages to twist his body free at the count of two.
The image that follows is spectacular in its simplicity, undoubtedly worthy of praise in any other medium, as these two icons lie for a moment, unmoving, almost nestled together, Michaels barely able to move, Undertaker’s head resting on his hip, an arm curled over his body. The camera zaps in to this ‘hug’, Undertaker’s face seems overcome with an expression of vulnerable uncertainty that seems entirely new (a brilliant performance from Taker in a single moment, filmed live, that took the narrative to an entirely new resonance). Neither man knows how much he’ll have to give to hold on to a victory: at this point, winning seems to mean something—not as part of some villainous feud, but for all those reasons that can’t be articulated, only portrayed.
This kind of emotional display may not mean much to some, but its worth remembering that emotional spectacle isn’t necessarily about depth or subtlety. In any case, the wrestling word adding some more range to its emotions, perhaps crafting some characters with a slightly more cerebral and sensitive appeal, might not be such a bad thing. So, any chance then that the success of this match could usher in a more sensitive side to professional wrestling on television?
Nah, probably not. I don’t really anticipate too many of the other wrestling stars spooning each other in weirdly personal, slightly-homoerotic moments of emotional anxiety.
Still, though, after some time off (both are pretty beat up) Shawn and the Undertaker are now gearing up for a rematch at this year’s Wrestlemania XXVI. Undertaker’s character is more or less rigid (as it has been for decades), but HBK’s narrative trajectory to the rematch has been (to an extent) particularly well designed, once again bypassing the wrestling’s usual aggressive thug and/or dangerous psychopath route.
In many ways it’s a direct narrative recognition of the undercurrents of the Wrestlemania XXV match: HBK has been carefully crafting a story—in many ways his own story—of a performer facing the end of his performing days and needing to demonstrate one final time that he’s still at the top of his game. Obviously the way to do this is to face The Undertaker again, and win.
The build up has been particularly exciting since Shawn (almost-certainly very much in control of his character behind-the-scenes) is willing to appear weak and fumble along the way in order to up the stakes of his desperately-needed victory (a potentially dangerous move given that parts of the wrestling fanbase still, inexplicably, often value victory and dull displays of strength over performance). Undertaker refuses the rematch request, forcing Shawn to aim to win the 2010 Royal Rumble and gain a guaranteed title shot.
Shawn’s monomania is costing him, though, and he starts racking up losses, creating tensions in his formerly unstoppable tag-team DX and losing the tag team titles (good riddance, DX). Shawn gives a blistering performance in the Royal Rumble—he’s won it twice in the ‘90s, and it looks like he’ll rack up a third, until he’s eliminated by perennially-useless lunkhead Batista (I was there in Atlanta in the back row and admit I yelped when Shawn hit the floor).
Shawn has a meltdown in the ring, seeming almost a bewildered senior citizen at the turn of events; the following night he vows to qualify for the next big chance at a title, which will also lead to a Wrestlemania rematch—and loses. Defeated, Shawn disappears from the title scene and the screen. Eventually, Shawn gets his rematch, but not without cost—if he wins, he breaks the Undertaker’s streak; if he loses, he has to retire.
Sure, it’s ridiculous, but Shawn’s defeat and retirement (if it sticks) would be a serious loss to the wrestling world, which is struggling to create new talents of his caliber. It’ll also be dramatically interesting as Shawn will go out on a losing streak, as a monomaniacally obsessed veteran who bet it all on a match he couldn’t win. If that’s how HBK wants to end his career and define his legacy, then it shows a commitment to narrative storytelling and personal exploration (on some level) that is rare in the WWE.
In fact, Shawn’s narrative arc has already allowed them to adopt a somewhat different tone, recapping the narrative with montage videos set to Placebo’s cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Ain’t No Grave’ (far from the usual testosterone filled generic metal that usually dominates - the Placebo clip layers on more solid doses of homoeroticism and Johnny Cash almost gives the proceedings some serious class!) and creating a story with a more drawn-out and planned narrative structure, dominated by carefully constructed images rather than general wrestler-ranting.
The narrative may not be subtle, but it doesn’t deserve to be overlooked, dismissed for its wonderfully personal ridiculousness, or lost in a cultural analysis of wrestling that is happy to look at it from afar but not learn its unique language.In fact, the narrative that stems from Wrestlemania XXV has the potential to be a kind of intensely personal coda like John Wayne’s The Shootist, which, like the wrestling world, combined the reality of its star with the narrative storyline of its hero: John Wayne was dying of cancer and making one last stab at a serious and personal film, just as his character was also dying of cancer and setting up a final doomed gunfight that would tie up his loose ends once and for all.
Shawn may not go out with such dramatic credibility (in fact, the latest progressions to the narrative have been OK, but typically unadventurous), but perhaps his legacy, and the legacy of one of his greatest matches, will be a wrestling world with a greater capacity to exploit its emotional resources and to mix its overt spectacle with occasional hints of human sincerity and sensitivity.