Let’s be honest: Undertaker has appeared somewhat sluggish and even bewildered at times since coming back for this year’s Royal Rumble. Not that it matters. The 52-year-old icon remains a massive gate attraction and awe-inspiring figure, and – health considerations notwithstanding – WWE would be foolish not to accommodate him for as long as he’s willing to perform.
One can only imagine what negotiations were like as 2016 rounded the corner toward 2017’s road to WrestleMania, particularly as it became evident that Undertaker and Roman Reigns were on a collision course to establish and concretize their respective legends. There’s already no lack of handwringing among gossipy fans and bloggers about whether this will in fact be Taker’s final match, and if so, whether Reigns is worthy of hastening his exit. The latter concern if fairly futile. If it’s been written, then so it shall be. And it would be an enormous moment for Reigns, exponentially more so than Jeff Hardy or Mick Foley having lost valiantly to a still formidable Phenom decades earlier. Plus, the potential dual symbolism of Undertaker “making” Reigns while proudly hanging up his boots – just as Shawn Michaels did in defeat to Taker at Mania XXV – is terrific, circle-of-life sports entertainment theater.
But if we’re still speaking truth, the reason it’s going to be a great match is because of Reigns. More than monster of the month Braun Strowman or derivative shaman Bray Wyatt, Reigns is the A-lister capable of sending Undertaker off with the dignified inter-generational duel he deserves, as opposed to the cynical exercise of Brock Lesnar breaking bank while upending The Streak or Shane McMahon hogging the highlight reel in defeat.
Let’s look past contention over whether he’s earned it – which he has, having already meted out and taken his lumps taking on the aforementioned upstarts, not to mention Lesnar. What matters most is that Reigns is the Undertaker’s modern mirror. He’s a man with size, speed, signature moves and an aura of invincibility scaled down to fit human proportions. His counterpart, now nearly 30 years removed from his WWE debut, embodies an era when the rare combination of physical stature and athleticism wasn’t enough without maximal mystique.
That’s all subtext, but what’s likely to surface next Sunday (which, like several other spots on the card, has been narratively lacking) has more to do with complementariness than chemistry. Undertaker will hit his spots – ropewalk, apron leg drop, dramatic upright resurrection, etc. – each an act of defiance against professional mortality and disruption of his adversary’s determination. In turn, Reigns’ endurance and explosiveness can offer cover for however markedly age and injury have slowed Taker down. Their ability to make each other look not just good but historically great rests – like it or not – on Reigns’ lead, which is what this clash is all about.
And while Roman’s critics are quick to carp over his Samoan-dynasty hookups, hesitancy on a microphone or limited fighting background, those arguments do nothing to rebuke what’s plainly evident after spending a couple of hours perusing recent WWE Network archives: When asked to step up (which is always), he tears the house down. He did it last May as defending heavyweight champ against the insurgent A.J. Styles on PPV; in the fall of 2015 versus a comparably high-impact Bray Wyatt on Raw; and—in anticipation of his quest to render the Prince of Darkness’ Mania record 23-2 – opposite Braun Strowman, whose stature and skillset happen to approximate those of vintage Undertaker.
Hell, even Styles himself conceded that it was Reigns who helped him get off on the right foot, a not-so-subtle rebuttal to haters who assume A.J. carried his less experienced competition. Because putting on 30 minutes in WWE is different than a half hour anywhere else, for better or worse. It’s something Reigns has always taken as a given, dating back to his days as a college-football player looking up to his cousins the Rock, Rikishi and Yokozuna, and that privileged perspective has served him well through the ranks of developmental and beyond, not all that different from Cody Rhodes.
Perhaps one day Reigns, like Rhodes, will find himself on a journey outside of WWE, testing his chops in promotions that demand different disciplines, pace and connection with the crowd. It’s equally possible that, win or lose at WrestleMania, he’ll finally come full circle as a heel and gain slow acceptance for years of putting his body on the line and swallowing his pride despite an unduly harsh hazing from fans. But odds are Calaway knows that as he approaches his landmark – and possibly last – 25th Mania match, he couldn’t be asked to put over, and get taken under, by a worthier or more appropriate foe.