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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels – WrestleMania 25, by Alex Podgorski

It is widely regarded as the best WrestleMania match ever. Some even call it the best WWE match of all time. Two of the best wrestlers of a bygone era, facing off in singles competition for the first time since 1998. Before this match, Undertaker was undefeated at ‘Mania, while also never having defeated Shawn Michaels in singles competition.

It was a dream match over ten years in the making, one we never thought we’d actually witness. But the day finally came when WWE’s two biggest superstars of the 1990s still left standing – Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker – were finally going to do battle on the biggest stage of them all.

The Story

This is a simple story: The Undertaker is undefeated at WrestleMania and Shawn Michaels wants to defeat him. Shawn had to beat two opponents just to earn the right to face the Deadman at WrestleMania. And in the lead-up to this show, Shawn mocked Undertaker incessantly, taunted him wherever he could, and attacked him from behind. He was playing mind games with the master of mind games, hoping that would give him an edge in the actual match.

It was originally rated 4.75 stars out of 5 by the Wrestling Observer and was voted Wrestling Match of the Year for 2009 by that same publication. The match was rated 5 stars out of 5 by John Canton here on TJRWrestling and he rated it the best WrestleMania match of all time.

The Match

This match took place at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas on April 5th, 2009.

Both guys go straight to work in selling the contract between them, beginning with their respective entrances. Shawn descends from the heavens dressed in white as a ray of heavenly light shines behind him and as ominous church choir music plays. Then, the Undertaker ascends from Hell (presumably) as great plumes of fire shoot up and as his trademark funereal dirge plays. I’ve heard many wrestlers’ entrance themes over the years and the Undertaker’s theme is hands down Jim Johnston’s magnum opus.

The bell rings and the crowd is electric. They circle each other and Shawn chops taker in the chest. Taker is un-phased as the fans chant his name. Shawn tries to hit multiple strikes in the corner and starts to gain the advantage. Shawn ducks a clothesline but taker grabs Shawn’s hand and hurls Shawn into the corner. What power.

Shawn punches his way out and tells taker to suck it, before feigning a knee injury and hits a Lou Thesz press to punch away at taker. Taker tosses Shawn again and hits huge right hands of his own in the corner. More hard strikes by the Undertaker. They begin exchanging strikes in a corner as the crowd gets even louder. Taker whips Shawn again and hits a huge back body drop that sends Shawn well over eight feet into the air. Undertaker with a Military Press slam and an elbow drop gets a one-count for the first cover of the match.

Taker starts working the left arm with shoulder thrusts and an arm wrench. Time for old school. He walks the rope and lands a hard strike. Taker charges with a boot but Shawn ducks. Shawn hits a knee breaker and a chop block targeting taker’s left leg. Big side kick to Undertaker’s head and Shawn’s in control. Shawn locks in a figure-4 leglock in the middle of the ring. He’s wearing down the legs as much as possible. Great psychology since the larger Taker needs his legs to maintain his power advantage.

Taker eventually fights his way out with punches, but Shawn kicks the leg again sending Undertaker back down. He charges again but Undertaker catches him and tosses him into the turnbuckle again. More hard strikes by Undertaker as he strikes his own leg to get feeling back into it. Running clotheslines by Undertaker connect twice. Undertaker hits snake eyes, the big boot and a leg drop, all for a two-count.

Taker signals for the chokeslam and goozles Shawn, but Shawn reverses into a crossface in the middle of the ring. Excellent reversal. Taker rolls through and gets a two-count, but Shawn maintains the hold. Taker summons inner power and life Shawn into a side slam to break the crossface and gets another two-count.

We get another exchange as Shawn ducks each of taker’s strikes and chops him, then hits a running forearm smash. Kip up by Shawn and two reverse atomic drops. Shawn continues with strikes and a clothesline. Shawn climbs the top rope but taker sits up. Shawn jumps right into a goozle, escapes the chokeslam, and looked like he was going for Sweet Chin Music but hit taker in the gut instead, ‘Taker goes down, Shawn tries the figure-4 again, but Undertaker reverses into the Hell’s Gate submission hold. The crowd’s going nuts! Shawn desperately reaches the rope with his foot. Great escape.

Both guys exit the ring and ‘Taker smashes Shawn into the steel ring steps. He follows up with a boot to Shawn’s face and then his trademark apron leg drop…but Shawn dodges and Undertaker goes down hard. Baseball slide dropkick by Shawn sends Undertaker back down outside the ring. A weakened Shawn ascends the turnbuckle…and attempts a moonsault crossbody but misses and lands HARD on the mat. Talk about a brutal landing. Taker uses this time to recover in the ring and then sits up menacingly. Shawn gets up slowly clutching the referee.

Undertaker gets a running start. Oh, God, he’s going to do it. Suicide Dive over the ropes! But Shawn dodges pulls a cameraman into him! Good God that landing was terrible. The cameraman missed him completely. Undertaker looks liked he spiked himself and landed at a terrifying angle. It looks like the Undertaker barely landed safely, having to break his fall with his own hands.

Everyone’s down as the crowd applauds. Yet the commentators are turning to ‘serious voices’. Shawn gets the referee to his feet to get him to start counting the Undertaker out. A win’s a win in Shawn’s book, even if it’s by count-out. Taker starts stirring at the count of five and the fans are cheering loudly. At the count of eight ‘Taker reaches the apron. At the last second ‘Taker makes it back into the ring, much to Shawn’s chagrin. Shawn’s face turns to one of desperation as he starts tuning up the band. Shawn prepares the kick…but Taker sidesteps and hits a picture-perfect chokeslam out of nowhere. Taker goes for the cover. One…two…NO! Shawn kicked out.

Taker scoops Shawn up for the Tombstone but Shawn tries Sweet Chin Music…no, ‘Taker grabs the leg and tries another chokeslam, but Shawn blocks it and hits sweet chin music. That’s it. Shawn is exhausted and crawls for the pin…but Undertaker kicks out. WOW, what a close call.

Shawn kips up after a time and grabs taker by the throat. Taker kicks Shawn in the gut and hoists him up into the powerbomb position. But Shawn rolls through and tries a sunset flip, but Taker picks him up and nails a perfect Last Ride. The ref counts one…two…No, Shawn kicks out AGAIN! Taker’s frustrated now.

As Shawn lies in the ring motionless, Undertaker climbs the rope…and tries a Shawn Michaels diving elbow drop, but Shawn rolls out of the way. No freaking way, ‘Taker NEVER does diving moves. That’s how much he wants to win this.

Both guys struggle to get to their feet. Shawn charges but Undertaker moves and Shawn tries to skin the cat. But taker sees this and grabs Shawn by the feet. Shawn’s completely helpless. TOMBSTONE PILEDRIVER! It’s over! The referee counts one…two…thr—NO! Shawn kicked out! He kicked out of the Tombstone at 2.9999! JR just had an out-of-body experience, and I don’t blame him! That was an epic near-fall! The camera zooms in onto Undertaker’s face and he has the perfect ‘what-do-you-mean-he-just-kicked-out face.

Taker lowers the straps and we see the brutal marks Shawn left on his chest with those chops. Taker signals the end. He tries to lift Shawn for the Tombstone again, but Shawn rolls through into a botched-looking DDT of sorts. Both guys are down again. Shawn climbs the top rope desperately. Diving elbow drop connects perfectly. Shawn goes into another corner and starts tuning up the band again. He hits Sweet Chin Music again! A perfect kick. The referee counts again… but Taker kicks out at 2.999 this time. Wow. These near-falls are outstanding.

Both guys struggle to get to their feet. A strike exchange begins. The fans are split evenly between them in terms of support. Huge boot by Taker. Shawn fights out of another Tombstone and chops away at ‘Taker some more. Shawn blocks a taker charge with a boot of his own.

Shawn climbs the top rope and attempts another moonsault…but Undertaker catches him in mid-air. Taker caught him. Shawn’s in a doomed position. Undertaker hits a massive Tombstone Piledriver. The referee counts one…two…Three! That’s it, the Streak still lives!

Winner after 30:44: The Undertaker

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HBhEixQAFU

Review

That was an amazing wrestling contest. Those were some of the best near-falls I’ve ever seen in a WWE ring. The near-falls were insane, the atmosphere incredible. Shawn put on a spectacular performance in trying to be a convincing underdog that had a mountain to climb. He did his best Randy Orton impression possible to make it seem like he could hit Sweet Chin Music out of nowhere. And the Undertaker came up to Shawn’s level in terms of work. Gone was the typical slowness and rigidity of the Undertaker’s movements. He kept pace with Shawn, which is very impressive in itself. They both did an incredible job selling their determination. Both of them should feel incredibly proud of having put on what is basically an almost-perfect match.

With all that great work out of the way, there were a few things I saw in this match that looked…off. First, there was the kick before Shawn tried the submission hold that got reversed into the Hell’s Gate. It looked like either one or both of them was out of place, and Shawn seemed to barely touch ‘Taker, yet ‘Taker went down. I know this might sound like nitpicking, but something looked to be off there between them for a split second.

Second, there was Shawn’s tombstone reversal into…something. If you watch it again, both guys go down in a jumbled heap as Shawn looked like he was trying to hit a DDT but something got messed up. Maybe his angle was off, or maybe Undertaker didn’t rotate properly. Either way, it looked like a sloppy move that’s unbecoming of two great performers.

But those things are insignificant details compared to the elephant in the room (stadium?): the suicide dive botch.

There’s no way around it: that landing was messed up horribly. The cameraman, Sim Snuka, was supposed to catch the Undertaker but failed. Thanks to WWE’s multiple rewinds, we got to see the Undertaker’s landing from multiple perspectives, and it looked sickening. I’ve seen a lot of sick bumps and bad landings watching wrestling, and this one was one of the worst. This was a thousand times worse than the Mark Henry botch at WrestleMania 22. At least in that match, when Undertaker hit the dive, he landed at an angle whereby his chest and upper collar absorbed most of the impact. Not so here. When the Undertaker landed, he was vertical, at almost a full 90-degree angle straight up. It almost looked like he was giving himself a Brainbuster, landing head-first into the canvas without any way to protect himself.

Watching that move was difficult. Although the Undertaker was moving and managed to continue the match (and indeed, kept wrestling as though nothing had happened), he could’ve gotten a concussion, neck injury, or much worse very easily from that error. I get it, this is wrestling and mistakes happen. But no match should have such a critical error that it takes you out of the moment and makes you genuinely worry about the health and safety of one of the performers.

Final Rating: ****3/4

I loved this match, I really did. Shawn did wonderfully here playing the determined underdog that had to climb a mountain to win. He did whatever he could short of cheating, and even resorted to trying to win by count-out. He did a fantastic job selling emotion and coming up with amazing counters and near-falls, even if a few of them weren’t done with 100% precision.

As for the Deadman, this was arguably his best straight singles match without gimmicks or stipulations. Indeed, this was his biggest vindication as a performer. The quality of his in-ring performance was checkered at best until about 2007, when he had a better-than-expected WrestleMania match with Batista and an even better match with Edge a year later. But this match proved the world wrong. Undertaker showed the world that he was so much better than everyone thought he was. He could wrestle incredibly well, and put on matches that were far more dramatic than his previous work without really damaging the character he had come to perform.

That said, I can’t call this a perfect match when it has such a glaring botch in it. It wasn’t the Undertaker’s fault, nor was it Shawn’s. Sim Snuka failed to catch Undertaker properly on the suicide dive. In doing so, the Undertaker took one of the most gruesome landings I have ever seen. The Undertaker looked like he landed straight on his head, which is bad enough when you’re in the ring. But this was a dive over the ropes onto the floor below. His head must’ve flown from a height of at least twelve feet or more, only to land hard on the canvas.

While this match is easily one of the best WrestleMania matches of all time, one cannot deny that its quality is tarnished by an obvious black spot.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.