We didn’t want to see Triple H vs. the Undertaker for a third time at WrestleMania. We didn’t think it was necessary to make Shawn Michaels the guest referee. We didn’t know where they would put the cage, and the Undertaker didn’t even know the date of the show. How could the End of an Era Hell in a Cell match be anything more than notch number 20 in The Deadman’s belt or a possible bridge between a stellar match at last year’s WrestleMania and some future feature bout? As it turned out, we were dead wrong.
The match was a brutal masterpiece in the often forgotten art of storytelling. While the cell itself was not used in the traditional way, it provided the only believable canvas on which these three masters could paint. There are no expectations of technical wrestling inside Satan’s Structure. It was perfectly acceptable for Triple H to dole out some 21 chair shots to the Undertaker and then demand that a cringing Heartbreak Kid end the match; a demand that ultimately went unfulfilled despite an emotional Showstopper considering it. This demand was not made out of collusion or cowardice, but out of fear; fear of what would have to be done in order to end the Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak (a feat Triple H had been unable to do in two previous attempts, including last year’s WrestleMania). That fear was nearly realized as The Game stood over a prone Undertaker, raised a sledgehammer over his head and was set to end much more than an undefeated streak before he was stopped by a diving Michaels. This series of lasting images personified the multiple narratives that unfolded over the course of the match. The diving HBK had preserved both the streak and the humanity of his best friend. Throughout the match Michaels turned in a visceral performance without over inserting himself physically.
No strike, no hold, not even a single step was wasted during this battle. Each man delivered his attacks as if they were the last that he would ever deliver. After each blow was delivered it appeared that it would only take one more and always take one more to finish them. With every glimpse of The Game’s anguished face and The Phenom’s purple and burgundy back, the story became clear. There is no tomorrow, only today and yesterday. They would usher themselves into history, on their terms, carrying their shields and being carried only by one another.
If this was the send-off to an era – more specifically the Attitude Era – it is peculiar that it came on the same night when one that era’s brightest stars (The Rock) was victorious over the current face of the company (John Cena). That is the duality of things. While the term “Superstar” has been appropriately applied to the unlikely triumvirate of Triple H, HBK and the Undertaker, they are wrestlers at heart; a fact of which I hope they are proud. This is why it was their match that represented an era. These three men have collectively been part of four of the greatest matches in WrestleMania’s nearly 30 year history and they all turned in their best performances as the sun set on their careers.
In the figure eight-shaped world that is professional wrestling, it is never exactly clear if you are witnessing the beginning or the end. As the three battered, bruised and emotionally-and-physically spent combatants embraced at the top of the ramp, the story found its ending. There may be other shows to stop, games to be played, and souls to put to rest, but there will never be a duplication of any of the three men who shared a cell a WrestleMania XXVIII. The era may have ended, but the memory remains, and long may it do so.
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