April 4, 2017

the undertaker

Evan McGarvey is all about Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect.

The bad guy. The antagonist. The heel. Or, as legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette once described him: “the guy who works with the guy that makes the money.”

Like a rim protecting center or a band’s second banana (GZA, Johnny Marr), the wrestling heel is the under appreciated organism that makes the ecosystem go. Emerging from this weekend’s Wrestlemania 33, the WWE appears to be having a predicament in regards to not just who their bad guys are, but what it means to be a heel in 2017.

Wrestlemania 33 became the flashpoint of this momentary crisis because our door to an entire era of wrestling good and evil, and the audience’s deepest, happiest suspensions of disbelief, has slammed shut.

The Undertaker has retired.

For 25 years, the man known as Mark Calaway—it even feels a little tawdry writing out his government name—transformed himself into a force like gravity. The Undertaker began as a silent, impervious, Old West mortuary professional, and became, in rough order: the tool of a portly, sinister urn-wielding manager; a brother-scarring arsonist; a Druid-esque cult leader with a phalanx of wrestlers in his thrall; thrower of Mick Foley off of Hell In A Cell, crucifier of Stone Cold Steve Austin, abductor of then-teenage Stephanie McMahon; a man buried alive only to return—mind-bogglingly, wonderfully—as a grumpy, wrestling-tradition-obsessed biker with a penchant for bandanas, chains, and pretty convincing BJJ holds who rode a Harley to the ring.

Then that brother he scarred, Kane, buried Undertaker alive again. He returned at Wrestlemania 20 in a Hegelian synthesis of his previous gimmicks. He had his duster jacket and wide brim hat but no pancake make up. He had his tattoos visible but no outlaw patches. He spoke—biker Undertaker was chatty compared to the silent titan of the early 90s—but this time in epigrammatic, Gothic threats.

This final run from Wrestlemania 20 in 2004 through Wrestlemania 33 on Sunday featured The Undertaker’s best technical matches. He got to wrestle younger stars that grew up as fans transfixed by him. We started to appreciate not just the mystique, nor just the endurance, nor only the toughness, but all of it. At bottom, the universal respect he garners among the sprawling pro wrestling business and its fans comes from The Undertaker’s power to move between sinister and noble, between being a bastion of how wrestling used to be, and being an emblem of its pyrotechnic, summer tent pole future.

So was he a heel? He abducted a teenager and put opponents into coffins. Was he a face? He fought tough without cheating—no eye pokes, no begging off—and lost without complaint. He could act like a bad guy without having to wrestle like one. It’s his oscillation between justice and evil, and the encapsulation of those traits in a mesmerizing presentation that’s the void the WWE now has to fill.

The time is right to craft the next dark, ethically malleable character. Luckily, for the last decade or so, American entertainment has leaned into villainy.

The deepest thrills in Breaking Bad? Watching Walter White learn how to be a yoga-breathing, chess master of a heel from Gus Fring. The best part of 50 Cent’s last decade? Exposing the then-ascendant Rick Ross in 2009 as, in Curtis’s own words, Gusto from CB4. Had Heath Ledger lived, do you have any doubt that the final of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series would have somehow had a Joker & Batman team-up?

It’s easy, and not inaccurate, to get the sense that America has gone full heel recently. The current inhabitant of the White House loves to cuss out his critics, shuffle blame onto the audience, demeans women to burnish his sense of self, has an odious fake tan, lies about every accomplishment, and—in a nice remix of the Undertaker’s heel run—seems to himself be under the spell of a group of white nationalist druids!

Since we’re in the golden (nuclear?) age of the American heel, let’s look at three case studies, all WWE superstars in the prime of their careers, who in someway or another borrow from The Undertaker’s playbook.

First, pour out some moonshine for Bray Wyatt. Wyatt swooped into the Internet wrestling cognoscenti’s consciousness in 2012 through a series of superb, genuinely unsettling vignettes and promos. Perched somewhere between DeNiro in Cape Fear and a True Detective swamp goon, Wyatt—squat, powerful, eerily flexible in the ring—could both wrestle well and summon a gaggle of looming, pasty panhandle flaks in sheep masks to serve as enforcers. Nominally a Gulf Coast cult leader who promised an end to worldly confusion through, uh, brainwashing and patchouli oil, Wyatt began as a weirdo one-off. But since his monologues became a staid ouroboros about truth and buzzards and oblivion, and his in-ring tricks went from lurid assaults to, I kid you not, the ability to project writhing maggots into the canvas at Wrestlemania 33, he’s felt like a soggy paint-by-numbers version of The Undertaker, all signifiers and no signal.

The Miz used to be pitiable. Mike Mizanin was a former MTV reality star desperate, viscerally, publicly desperate, to be given a job, any kind of job, with WWE. He got one. First, he was a presenter. Then a game, awkward rookie. Then a delusional mid-carder. Then a squawking guest voice on whichever C-list town’s drive time radio show the office needed him to hype a show on.  Then on national morning shows. Then a smarmy accidental champion. Then a bungled Wrestlemania main event with John Cena. Then the bottom of the card. Then the yawning trap door seemed about to open, the one that would have dropped the Miz to “future endeavors” and hosting on VH1. And then something amazing happened. His backstage promos got teeth. He started staring into the camera with conviction. He eliminated the redundancies from his move set, got comfortable in his straight-to-DVD roles in WWE’s film studio, and leaned into being the best version of a mid-shelf self he could be.  

Enter John Cena.

The biggest star of a generation, Cena was the Mozart to Miz’s Salieri. What’s followed over the past two months has been nothing short of peak YouTube for wrestling fans. Miz and his wife, former WWE ‘Diva’ Maryse, have imitated John Cena and his then-girlfriend, now-fiancé (Wrestlemania 33 proposal, natch), WWE ‘Diva’ Nikki Bella and their time on WWE’s and E!’s reality show Total Divas.

Miz made real everything that smark fans have muttered about Cena for a decade. In a set of vignettes, Miz made Cena into Man In The Gray Spandex Suit. Fifty pounds lighter and more boyish, Miz provided note-perfect aping of Cena’s Robocop walk and each of his Standards & Practices approved catch phrase. Miz tapped each crack that we wanted to see in the Cena/Bella façade with a ball-peen hammer…Most painfully, Miz made the for-the-cameras romance between “Cena” and Nikki (played by Maryse) into a reality show convenience, a Jane Austen 3:16 marriage plot frigid as botox. It’s almost too real, too close to the bone for anyone who can read between the cuts of reality TV. The Miz brought laudably savage stuff and Cena’s responsorial promos in the weeks leading up to their match at Mania were appropriately felt and ragged. Cena was finally finally shook. And, in true heel tradition, each viewer was ready and amped for The Miz and Maryse to receive their comeuppance at Wrestlemania.

The best heel of all is the man who retired The Undertaker this weekend: Roman Reigns. I was at Wrestlemania 32 in AT&T Stadium in Dallas last year amongst 100,000 people. We booed Reigns out of the building when he was the ostensible hero in the main event. Then, to many, he represented a Poochie-level mishmash of marketing fever dream tropes, all fingerless gloves and blue contacts, long wet hair and jumping punches.

But he spent most of 2016 honing his craft in the ring with his technical betters. He waded through garbage promos ‘crafted’ by a team of writers and came into the Wrestlemania home stretch with an honest to god character: the guy who’s been gifted with everything physical, has the rest of his life taken care of by the machine, and has just enough self reflection to wear it all lightly underneath his costume flak jacket. A more powerful heel combination you couldn’t dream of.

So the night after he beats a beloved, singular wrestling legend, Reigns came out first live on RAW. He stood in the ring for nearly ten minutes as the once-a-year mélange of international fans and nerds volleyed every chant and curse they could muster. Reigns said nothing. He brought the mic to his mouth, smirked, and dropped it again. The crowd worked itself into a meltdown. Children in the arena—members of lone demographic who likes Reigns—looked distraught.

Then, as the arena in Orlando seemed, on my screen at least, to shake with the crowd’s venom, Roman Reigns cooled his face, drained it of affect, and said: “this is my yard now.”

He had taken the catch phrase pabulum—Whose yard is it? Roman’s or Undertaker’s? Repeat ad nauseam —from a month of promo packages and parroting announcers and transformed it into a weapon. He did not give the crowd any diatribe or recap. He let it burn itself out, dragged it in a phrase and then denied it the chance to boo more.

In that moment, he took a grand step toward becoming the heel. He did what he wanted, called it something else, and let you stew. He took your rage, your grief, and your hunger and turned it into money.