The Tetralogy is a term I have used to describe four specific matches from a specific element of The Undertaker’s legacy. It is a term I borrowed, as I borrow many things, from William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s second tetralogy spanned a long history of succession, beginning with the overthrow of Richard II and ending with the patriotic reign of Henry V. Four plays, epic in scope and perhaps unparalleled in terms of quality and achievement.

What better analogy could there be for those four Streak matches? They are matches that stand so far apart from all others, but so close together in themselves. It began in 2009 at the 25th Anniversary when Shawn Michaels, Mr Wrestlemania, challenged The Undertaker so that he could tear down one of the great wonders of the wrestling world – The Streak. It is a match that lives in infamy, and placing any distaste for its hype aside, it was no doubt a histrionic effort that exists now within its own historical bubble, almost exempt from the rest of history.

But what many thought could have been an end actually turned into a beginning; a beginning of a story that would take four years to tell. What followed was a wrestling fable that pondered upon the fragility of human success. Shawn Michaels developed an unhealthy obsession that resulted in the end of his career. The Undertaker developed an unhealthy hubris that risked everything he had built because of the blinding ego of his monolithic achievement. Triple H developed a spirit of Nemesis, a divine retribution fixated on the evisceration of a remorseless quest for a greatness already attained. And, in a final hellacious chapter, the three came together in a raw collision of emotion as all sought their own version of closure to an era that had grown to consume everything that had defined them – that era wasn’t of the company; it was of the Tetralogy.

The story those three men told over the space of those four years was wondrous. This series has already labelled a previous match as WWE’s magnum opus, and in actual fact it is a label that doesn’t feel proper to attach to today’s bout anyway. The truth is that every Tetralogy match defies labels. It is its own entity, together creating a near spiritual tale that represents so many peaks of so many factors of WWE’s in-ring history that it may never be outdone by anyone. It’s ironic that such a story of vanity may yet prove to be immortal.

Surely, in such a heralded effort, one of those four bouts had to be must see. I had to ask myself if that was the case, and more importantly consider what the best choice would be. The first effort was excluded from this list for numerous reasons, but the most relevant here is the fact that, as stated, it carries no historical significance because so grand was its achievement that it’s almost attained its own state of memory. The final chapter from inside the Cell narrowly missed out because, for all its horrifying claustrophobia, it was, for all intents and purposes, limited mostly to a single illustrative point regarding a specific environment. So I had to decide between two: the second Shawn Michaels match that saw a career end because of an all-consuming quest for self-validation, or the first Triple H match that saw The Undertaker’s arrogance deny him a victory and limit him to the confines of just another win.

The margin was narrow, but I made my choice by way of a very famous quote.

“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” ~ Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die

The Top Ten


Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker

The Streak vs. Career

No Disqualification, No Count-Out Match

Wrestlemania XXVI

March 28th, 2010

As I’ve continued to bring this list closer to completion, I have attempted to make evident a belief of mine without ever outright stating it. Today, I will forego the trust. Part of my philosophy on professional wrestling, that has become clear to me as I have undertaken this mammoth task, is that the best wrestling matches are wrestling matches that have something to say; or, in other words, matches that are prepared to make a comment. While today is not about the Tetralogy, those four matches have a number of common themes, one of which is revenge. That is exactly what this instalment is all about.

On the heels of a striking pre-match promo, cinematic in its scope, and with a freshened hard reminder of the scale of their encounter the year before, it is easy to find oneself viewing the work involved from both men much closer to acting than to wrestling. That is a facet that becomes increasingly important to remember as events unfold.

If the fragility of human achievement comes into play here, it does so through the visage of the untimely consequences that revenge can breed. It is a vanity of purpose that leads to ungainly results, and that continuity is firmly established before the match even begins. Like with the other encounters involved in this over-arching four piece, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker begin telling their story on their way to the ring. As Shawn Michaels makes his entrance to the narrative rhetoric of setting suns, the impression is given that this is a match more about the challenger than it is The Undertaker – perhaps it is the only example of that switch of focus in the entire Streak, making it all the more unique. It is the narrative rhetoric and the measured demeanour of the Heartbreak Kid that creates an initial wave of bone-chilling fatalism, a near undeniable impression of inevitability that is being helplessly marched towards.

Shawn is, of course, followed by the ethereal Undertaker. The entrance is one of the more muted Wrestlemania efforts from the Deadman, but perhaps it is also one of his most purposeful. The preceding year, Shawn Michaels descended from the heavens before dancing his way to the squared circle with all the usual boisterousness. For the second go around, it was a more standard affair – the Heartbreak Kid, off of his previous failed effort at The Streak, now stood robbed of his divine intention, instead relying on a simple mortal aspiration. However, when the previously victorious Undertaker enters, rising from the pits of the stage and bringing his hellish intent with him, he remains identically as superlatively powerful as he was in 2009. What’s more, he does so dressed in the style of an executioner. None of that is a mere stylistic choice; it is statement of dread intent.

Finally, it should also be noted that, as The Undertaker makes his long cold march to the ring, Shawn Michaels’ expression is a picture of serenity. His face isn’t one of focus, it isn’t one of nervousness. As a matter of fact, it’s almost as if he isn’t there. That’s not a bad thing, it is a statement of intent all its own. Shawn Michaels is a man willing to live with the consequences of his actions here, an emotional beat that is later played upon by the two sequels that follow in a genius expression of synthesis. It is such peace of mind and unity of purpose that makes Shawn Michaels feel as dangerous here as The Undertaker does himself. For every promise the Deadman makes, Shawn Michaels makes one in return.

That really hits the psychology on the head. Wrestling matches are often about threats. This one is about promises, with both combatants as confident in their own victory as the other. Never is that more obvious than in the terse opening stare-down. The crowd isn’t necessarily as vocally hot as in other Wrestlemania main events, but there’s a pervading buzz at work that pops when Shawn Michaels, once again in rather telling fashion, draws first blood by utilising The Undertaker’s own signature taunt against him. What had so far been a match becomes a war through that single act of exacerbation, and it is the first hint at the game Shawn Michaels had come to play that night – his intention was not to be Shawn Michaels, but rather to be The Undertaker himself.

It is that game plan that makes this match so much more overtly aggressive than their initial clash twelve months earlier. There have been occasions in Wrestlemania past where men have gone out and wrestled a misjudgement, choosing to follow the wrong kind of discourse that unfortunately mars their effort with a lack of crowd reaction. Given the two on-form individuals involved here, it may come as no surprise that everything is instead perfectly judged, perhaps even swinging in a direction not anticipated by any of us. Suitably for the story of revenge at play, aggression is the name of the game as both individuals come out swinging with swift offensive strategies. Shawn Michaels exhibits lessons learned from the previous year by attempting to goad The Undertaker into a state of ferocity, in which it is so easy for one to stumble. No doubt, given the nature of the feud, the Deadman had intended to come out and launch an unrelenting physical and mental assault on a man betting the house so as to entirely overwhelm him; Shawn Michaels cunningly turns the energy on itself, matching The Undertaker’s early promises with promises of his own and, once the bell had rung, taking the fight to the Phenom. It is in direct contrast to the more tentative settling in process of his effort in Houston and reminds both his opponent and the audience that The Undertaker was all-in as well.

There is, admittedly, a great deal of signature offense utilised very early on, but that is simply in fitting with the aggressive voice both men give this properly escalated sequel. The Undertaker is able to gain an early advantage despite the Heartbreak Kid’s intentions, and shows signs of a learning curve himself. Utilising his more recognisable moves so early, such as Snake-Eyes, Old School and an attempted Chokeslam, is indicative of a man respectfully aware of how close to defeat he had edged the last time. Playing perfectly into the underlying psychology, it relates as a competitor looking to finish this affair early and deny it a marathon run time that so dangerously invigorates as deadly an aspiration as that of Mr Wrestlemania.

What’s more, as the match unfolds and further amounts of signature offense come into play, the whispers of urgency develop into an outright lecture. Coupled with the aggressive opening, there is a panicked inflection in the execution of both competitors. When Shawn Michaels is able to wrest the advantage from the Phenom, he breaks out a couple of recognisable submission finishers – a Figure Four and an Ankle Lock – and, in return, The Undertaker lands a counter-offensive Chokeslam. Even the exchange of strikes that occurs in the same transitional set-piece, so often a signal for an incoming conclusive exchange, feels like a direct attempt to turn offense into onslaught. The character of the match is heavily orientated around signatures and finishers, but whereas that may so often feel like a lack of ideas and a cheap play for emotional investment, here it plays perfectly into the innumerable subtleties such a carefully constructed story requires.

As mentioned already, both men are entirely confident in their own seemingly inevitable victory. Both men already know they can withstand at least a single salvo of the other’s best, courtesy of their epic already in the record books. As a result, they have no intention of killing time or waiting out for an opportunity to present itself. Whereas elements of their first match play out as a waiting game, keeping a close eye out for a stumble or a mistake to capitalise upon, this match evidences men that are going to outright force their own issue. It’s all guns blazing from the first toll of the bell, turning what had once been a simple seasoning designed to enhance the greater recipe into an outright central ingredient. It may sound like something of a fragile excuse designed to combat a fairly obvious criticism, but the proof is in the pudding. Every move is designed as an endgame, from the blistering knife-edge chops to the myriad submission holds to the desperate moonsaults. Even seeing The Undertaker throw aside a medic checking on Shawn Michaels after a Tombstone Piledriver on the outside expresses the same urgency – rip open the other’s offensive, force your issue, impose your opportunity and nail the final move whenever and wherever you can.

As their larger story unfolds, they do get rather trigger happy with the big time moves. Even so, there are still positives to be gleaned. Both individuals have a fair number of opportunities to either outright avoid the other’s finish – an example being Undertaker’s early dodge of an attempted superkick – or alternatively to reverse them – more so the dominant tactical deployment of HBK. In the end, it’s not just the intangible of an increased pace and stronger tone of intent that shows both men have learned their lessons from the previous year, but it’s very much a literally expressed sentiment as well. It’s also important to realise that every plot twist the two insert into their in-ring story comes, by virtue of their indulgence in false finish, as an explosive shock rather than as a result of a more measured constant motion. Never is that more apparent than the first Sweet Chin Music that acts as a a sudden reminder of how this high stakes poker game can end in so brief a flash; it’s not a finishing move, it’s a revelation. But even when used as transitional moves, they still continue to act as important plot twists – the superkick that lands The Undertaker on the table is a moment that allows Shawn Michaels to capture enough of an advantage to land an all-or-nothing moonsault, followed by a further kick to the chin inside the ring as he finally manages to overwhelm the Deadman with the physical onslaught he had lined up from the onset. These moves aren’t just used to get a reaction from the crowd, but as a means to give even the bout’s connectives a necessary emotional relevance. And if nothing else, you should at least be able to admire the clearly well planned structure; the entire sequence, from the Last Ride inside the ring to the out-of-body near fall off the third superkick, flows beautifully.

It is easy to allow one’s vision to become too narrow with this particular main event though. For all this talk of the overuse of trademark retinues, it’s easy to overlook the rather different first act. It plays out as a far more traditional match. A large focus is put on Shawn Michaels attacking The Undertaker’s knee, which is set-up in an impressively trustworthy and unobvious manner as The Undertaker sells a tweak coming off of Old School in the early goings. Unfortunately, that rather safe approach, despite its more anxious aesthetic, does border dangerously on feeling somewhat safe for such a big match situation. The announce booth make particularly good use of the approach in their colour, but it doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to a big fight feel.

The lack of any counter-offense from Shawn Michaels in the first five minutes, that remain pretty much all Deadman, is a unique touch, denying a sense of tit-for-tat action and allowing the focus to remain tight and clear. This isn’t a match that moves in and out as the preceding entry on the list did, with the emphasis instead being on the already examined idea of explosive and sudden u-turns in plot. As a result, each sequence carries a totality with it that simply plays further into the hands of the fatalism we sensed during those important entrances. Optimistically, when you couple this with the traditional approach to their first act explained above, you get a holistic feel that, to me, reads as superior to the sometimes frayed psychology of the year before. Attention has been paid to every small nuance and, because of that, it feels more wholly satisfying by the time it concludes, at least to me.

To round off, it is their final scene together that is the most impressive. Its execution and structure is incredibly simple, but where the complexity comes in is through how they so effectively manipulate the semantics of the sweeping story they were now in the midst of. When Shawn Michaels kicks out of the Tombstone, Undertaker sensibly avoids expressing the same disbelief he expressed the year before. Instead, believably, what you get is an expression of outright frustration. His more urgent and high octane game was still being withstood, his own adaptation being rendered inert by the adaptations of his opponent; promises had not yet been broken. The masterstroke of Shawn Michaels trying to turn The Undertaker’s familiar Wrestlemania state back on him seemed to be working, and such is the lack of Undertaker’s own certainty that he fails to complete his signature throat slash, one performed so eagerly by Shawn Michaels during the opening stand-off. Is that an expression of respect or of reluctance? Certainly, by the time Shawn Michaels crawls his way up The Undertaker’s singlet, we get perhaps the first and only instance of the Deadman showing hesitation and remorse for what he felt he had to do.

And even in the face of his inevitable failure, Shawn Michaels finishes what The Undertaker couldn’t, slashing his throat again in the face of the Deadman to signify his acceptance of what was about to happen and, at the same time, neutering The Undertaker of a true sense of achievement. When The Undertaker hesitates still, Shawn Michaels slaps him, challenging him to pull the trigger, almost making it an order of his own. Even the final Tombstone is given respectful forethought – ‘Taker goes so far as to jump in the air to deliver the killing blow, knowing a standard execution had thus far failed to do the job. After a prolonged recovery time, we get an almost out-of-character show of respect from The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels is allowed the final farewell he had gone a long way to deserving since his return eight years previous.

But having tried to relate to you the high drama I personally find this fantastic piece of theatre to possess, I am under no illusion most of you reading this will still remain unconvinced that this match deserved the spot on my list rather than its immediate predecessor. In truth, there are certainly flaws, with one such example being, despite the nuanced psychology at play, a lack of variety in what happens. They execute what they utilise well, but the truth is they could have done with utilising a little bit more. That being said, whether it is a better match or not is beside the point and far from the reason why I selected it.

So why did I?

This is a match with something to say, wanting to comment on the flawed nature of revenge and the pitfalls that chasing such revenge will inevitably lead you to.

Here you have a Shawn Michaels who actively expressed that if he couldn’t end The Streak he had no career. Mr Wrestlemania had become so definitive a nickname for this man that he defined his entire career through the most demanding question that could have been asked of him. That obsession, with revenging his haunting loss at the 25th Anniversary of the event many said he defined, drove him to be backed into a corner that, perhaps irreversibly, he could never escape, even if he did try to come out fighting. The styles wrestled by both men involved were urgent, high impact and no nonsense. As such, it is clear that The Undertaker was as obsessed with proving the fallibility of Shawn’s intention, of revenging for himself the very temerity of the Heartbreak Kid to challenge him not once but twice, as Shawn was with gaining an unnecessary self-validation; indeed, the fact it was unnecessary in the eyes of most fans makes this chapter’s ending all the more poignant.

In the end, it was Shawn’s fixation with hunting down the Deadman and killing The Streak that dragged him under the water, so that he could drown in his own blood, sweat and tears. The Streak proved to be to Shawn Michaels what the white whale proved to be to Captain Ahab. If his chest had been a mortar, no doubt he would have burst his hot heart’s shell upon the Phenom simply to get one step closer to victory.

As you can tell, in my eyes, the incredible complexity of the story-telling of this match is something I could quite comfortably label as must see.

But there is a far more pertinent issue at play that means this match stands apart from any hyperbole I choose to employ. Consider that this match ended a career. A lot of the time, career ending bouts in wrestling are rather like character deaths in comic books, in that they usually get ret-conned one way or another. This one, however, has stuck. As far as I can tell, it will stick for the rest of Shawn’s life. That means that Shawn Michaels slapping The Undertaker in the face will forever remain his final act as an active professional wrestler.

On a superficial level, you may simply think that it’s just a fairly memorable visual for Shawn Michaels to bow out on, nothing more than another few seconds supplied for another highlight reel as Wrestlemania is remembered through the years. I suppose that might be the case. The literal intention may have been nothing more. But this match, along with the one that preceded it and the two that followed, is all about symbolism.

Who is The Undertaker? He is perhaps the true face of the company, the man whose name will be first from the lips of any fan asked the question, “Which wrestler is most synonymous with WWE?” In a lot of ways, no wrestler better represents the industry than The Undertaker. He is a man that is verging on a level of myth, as well as perhaps the only individual anywhere close to rivalling the eternal legacy of André the Giant. The Undertaker represents the tradition, respect and integrity of pro wrestling in WWE.

Who is Shawn Michaels? He is a man that has made a career, rather controversially, of flying in the face of every possible convention he can. Whether it was his breakthrough as a major singles star in spite of his size, his association with partisan match booking courtesy of his membership to the Kliq, his poisonous influence on the television product as founder of DX, his return to sobriety and in-ring competition following quite literal career-ending spine surgery or simply managing to continually improve as the years wore on, Shawn Michaels, time and again, didn’t just shatter preconceptions but, for better or worse, succeeded while he did so. Shawn Michaels made a career out of slapping pro wrestling tradition in the face.

This match is must see because it is the single most fitting end to any career any pro wrestler has ever had. Ric Flair’s proper career ended as he begged for more, a sad expression of his addiction to an industry he doesn’t know how to live without. Shawn Michaels saw his career end as he defiantly taunted professional wrestling and slapped it in the face to put the final nail in the coffin of his legacy, letting his career die in exactly the manner he had allowed it to live.

Because of that, I think I’ll close with something I should probably say more often.

Thank you Shawn, for being such a defiant son of a bitch.

Click here to watch The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels.

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