Shane McMahon vs. The Undertaker is a main event of WrestleMania 32. Imagine reading that a year ago. Better yet, imagine reading it three weeks ago. You’d probably think that was the craziest thing you’d ever heard. But it’s actually happening, and I still think it’s totally bonkers. Like New Jack, try to murder you with common kitchenware, bonkers.
Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures. Vince McMahon vowed to break the WrestleMania attendance record at this year’s event, and the company will have to do so without five of its top superstars—John Cena, Seth Rollins, Cesaro, Randy Orton, and the recently retired Daniel Bryan—who are all sidelined by injury.
It had been reported that Cena was the man to challenge Taker at possibly his last WrestleMania in Dallas, Texas, but a devastating shoulder injury nixed those plans (and rumors of him returning in time for the event have been squashed by Super Cena himself).
Kevin Owens’ name had been thrown around in both the Undertaker and Brock Lesnar match discussions, mostly since big K.O. mentioned wanting to fight them himself. WWE creative had other plans. Now it looks like he’ll be facing Sami Zayn, which is awesome!
Roman Reigns was a long shot for the Taker match, yet also another intriguing possibility. Imagine the nuclear heat Reigns would get for knocking off The Undertaker at his show in his home state. That is NOT was the WWE wants or needs right now, especially if they want to keep pushing Reigns as a top babyface.
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Braun Strowman, or the white, goat-faced Great Khali as I like to call him, had apparently also been considered for the match. To put a guy that green, who would also be competing in his first main roster single’s bout ever, against the greatest WrestleMania performer of all time wouldn’t just be nonsensical. It’d be an absolute train wreck—both in the ring and among the fans. Thank God that’s not happening.
With speculation running wild (no Hogan), McMahon absolutely, unequivocally shocked the world. He called on his own son, Shane McMahon, who hasn’t been seen in a WWE ring since 2009, to dance with the Dead Man at WrestleMania.
Hearing Shane O’Mac’s music blast three weeks ago, and watching the capacity Detroit crowd erupt as he did the classic Shane dance across the stage, was surreal. It was one of those slack jawing, shake your head moments, but in the greatest possible way.
Couple the utter shock with Shane’s lofty intentions—to take control of the WWE—and Vince’s major match announcement, and we had all the makings for an epic storyline.
As soon as Vince uttered The Undertaker’s name (in a voice resembling his “YOU’RE FIRED” voice, but a little tamer and more smug), revealing who Shane would have to defeat at WrestleMania for control of the WWE, I could only think about one thing: Shane and The Undertaker are old. Damn old. Shane is a 46 year-old non-wrestler who hasn’t competed since Legacy (you know, the stable with Randy Orton, Ted DiBiase, and Cody Rhodes) was a thing, and Taker is a 50 year-old veteran whose body is wearing down after 30-plus years in the sports-entertainment business. Oh, and they’re going to be duking it out in one of the truly violent matches WWE still has left to offer—Hell In A Cell.
Are we to believe that they can put on a decent match? It certainly won’t be a grappling contest, nor will it be technically sound. And you can bet your life savings that the competitors won’t look as fresh and spry and athletic as a Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose. It’s just not feasible for two guys whose age approaches the century mark to put on a 5-star wrestling match. That’s why a killer storyline needs to accompany it, and the seeds were planted during that February 22nd edition of Raw.
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Shane McMahon told his father he has dirt on him from years past, and that he’ll keep quiet only if he’s given controlling stake of Raw, and by extension, of WWE (which apparently, he’s entitled to anyway… confusing). Vince wants the whole situation to go away, which is why he promised to satisfy Shane’s demands if he could defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania. Of course, if Taker beats Shane, then the billion-dollar prince (that doesn’t sound as good as “billion-dollar princess”) would forfeit his inheritance and be banished from WWE forever.
Clearly, there’s lot going on here. With a storyline this complicated, it’s crucial for WWE to properly unpack it in the time leading up to WrestleMania. The Undertaker’s response, which occurred two weeks ago, was supposed to address an important aspect of the match’s buildup: His motivation for fighting on behalf of McMahon. But it didn’t.
After a three-minute, classically drawn-out Undertaker intro, the Dead Man uttered a mere three sentences during which he grabbed Vince by the throat and reminded him that Shane’s blood would be on the Chairman’s hands. Then, Taker left. His promo was shorter than his intro. I felt duped.
But the brevity of The Undertaker’s appearance represents a more profound issue affecting the product. WWE is an entertainment business built on its ability to tell stories featuring over-the-top, super-hero esque characters. The key words being stories and characters.
Think about it this way: The WWE story structure is similar to that of a play or a movie. There are superstars who represent the characters. These characters have their own personas and journeys. There are “good” characters (or at least, their characteristics make them good), like John Cena and Roman Reigns, who possess strong moral compasses and are looking to achieve a certain goal. Why exactly are they pursuing that goal? Because they have (a) specific motivation(s) for doing so, which must be apparent.
Then, there are “bad” characters who stand in the way of the good guys and try to prevent them from achieving those goals. Heels (i.e. the bad guys) represent the obstacles that faces (i.e. the good guys) encounter on their journeys. What makes a compelling storyline is when the good guy (or even anti-hero) faces obstacles, conquers those obstacles, perhaps deals with a twist or turn along the way, eventually defeats the primary antagonist (i.e. the climax), and ultimately achieves his or her goal.
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Following this format helps explain why the 2014 Daniel Bryan saga was successful. Moral underdog wants championship, but evil authority (literally) denies him from having it on multiple occasions. After months of scratching and clawing (and YESSSSing), underdog finds himself in a face-to-face encounter with his biggest foe (Triple H). Hero defeats foe. Hero goes on to reach his ultimate goal: winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
That was WWE storytelling at its finest.
While not every storyline can be as successful as Daniel Bryan’s rise to the top, each should have logical structures and characters. My biggest problem with WWE over the past decade is not that it switched from TV-14 to TV-PG programming (a common complaint among WWE fans). My gripe lies in the company's affinity for lazily stringing together underdeveloped and often nonsensical storylines. That’s exactly what it felt like was happening during The Undertaker-Vince McMahon segment on Raw.
We were expecting a huge response from The Undertaker about why he is fighting on behalf of Vince McMahon. But we didn’t get one.
As a character, he must have some reason for doing Vince’s dirty work. To tease out (or at least, clarify) a significant piece of complex story, WWE was supposed to reveal Taker’s motivation. They didn’t. If anything, Taker displayed weakness in that segment by allowing McMahon to call him “his instrument” without consequence. The Undertaker, according to what we know about his convictions, isn’t anyone’s instrument. So why, then, is the deadliest, most intimidating superstar in the WWE acting like one? Does this make him a heel? It just doesn’t make sense from the perspectives of plot and character, leaving huge holes in the storyline.
If you’re going to feed us a narrative involving blackmail, father-son dissent, struggles for power, returning superstars, and questions regarding The Undertaker’s loyalty (a subject that has extremely deep-rooted implications, dating back to the Monday Night Wars era), you have to break it down. You can’t just have Taker show up for 30 seconds and leave without saying anything even remotely enlightening. It makes it seem like WWE doesn’t really care about the story, and by extension, its audience. Instead, they’re looking to sell Shane vs. Undertaker simply on based on star power. In my book, that’s not good enough.
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Of course, there is still time before WrestleMania 32—a little less than four weeks—which means that there’s ample opportunity to develop the storyline further. If WWE can figure out what it’s trying to achieve with The Undertaker at his event, and present it to us clear, yet riveting way, then the company has a legitimate chance of putting on a historic WrestleMania match. If things remain blurry, it’ll be difficult to know who to root for—since both participants are apparently faces—and interest in the match and the characters involved will waver. WWE must tread carefully.
April 3rd, 2016 could be the last time The Undertaker competes at a WrestleMania event. He deserves better than serving as a henchman for Vince McMahon—and that's exactly how the WWE has characterized Mark Calaway thus far.