The man behind WWE’s mysterious Undertaker featured in docuseries
Rest in peace.
In life, those words are associated with sadness and mortality. With death.
In wrestling, however, those words are associated with fear. With darkness. With destruction.
Those three words have been immortalized by less a man, more a legend. A myth, if you will. The Undertaker.
For more than three decades, World Wrestling Entertainment’s reaper of souls carved an iconic and incomparable path of destruction and distinction that will be nothing if impossible to equal.
But the reaper himself does not discriminate.
“Rest in peace” is, in fact, precisely what the man behind The Undertaker, Mark Calaway, seeks, 30 years later. He’s all too aware that time continues to tick in the corner of his unrivaled career. And for the first time in his career, the man behind The Deadman hangs his cross; his soul to bare in a five-part docuseries produced for the WWE Network entitled Undertaker: The Last Ride.
The series explores previously uncharted territory for both the WWE and its most mysterious talent, who has almost never spoken publicly as Mark Calaway and rarely grants interviews.
“Funny enough, we never set out to do a docuseries,” Calaway, the 55-year-old Texan who has portrayed The Undertaker since 1990, told Postmedia in an exclusive interview. “Going into WrestleMania 33 against Roman (Reigns), I thought that was going to be my last match. I was extremely beat up, I needed my hip replaced and I just wanted to capture those last few days, my interactions with talent and (WWE Chairman) Vince (McMahon) and my family (on film). I didn’t know what we were going to do with it, but I just knew that I wasn’t going to have another chance and I wanted it.”
That footage was the beginning of what would yield a fascinating and candid glimpse into the world of a man who built his career – and character – around mystery.
“It’s really been a process to force myself to let my guard down,” Calaway admitted about the series. “Even as we started getting into this, I’d have a camera crew and I’d be backstage and I’d see them filming and I’d turn around and snap at them like ‘What are you guys doing? You guys know better,” he said. “Then it would dawn on me: ‘Oh yeah, you’re following me. I told you to do this. I asked you.’ ” he said with a chuckle.
Part of what made The Undertaker character so successful was the mystery surrounding him. Rarely if ever was The Undertaker seen outside of a WWE ring. Even as cellphones and social media emerged, Calaway and WWE protected the aura surrounding the Phenom. So it came as something of a surprise when the docuseries was announced for the WWE Network. For Calaway, it has been a culture shock, to say the least.
“I don’t know if liberating is the word, because I’m a very private person anyway, when I’m at home and not working, but it’s kind of been nice to be able to enlighten my fan base,” he admitted. “It has been so loyal through the years, especially in this age when there is a flavour of the week, it seems, all the time. For my fan base, they’ve stuck with me forever and it’s been nice to be able to kind of pull back some of the curtain and let them see what it takes for me to go out and do what I love for the fans.”
Together McMahon — the Dr. Frankenstein to Calaway’s monster — and The Undertaker rewrote wrestling history, creating a mythical-like creature who put together arguably the greatest career in history. As The Undertaker, Calaway racked up an unimaginable 21 straight wins at WrestleMania, and 25 overall in 27 Mania appearances.
“I think once we established this character — obviously the character and the person become so intertwined — I was able to evolve the character,” he said, adding that the key to Taker’s longevity was evolving. “I kept being able to bring it along and make certain changes to keep it fresh because there was so much TV and there was so much exposure.” Having earned McMahon’s trust, Calaway was given creative control of his character. “Fortunately, Vince and my relationship also had evolved and once he knew that he could trust me, then he allowed me to take the reins of it. He gave me the creative liberty with it. It kind of became part of me.”
Undertaker was an instant hit from his debut at the 1990 Survivor Series, encompassing mystery, darkness, soul stealing, casket matches and win after win after win. He was indestructible. He was also one of the few talents who did not depart WWE to join rival World Championship Wrestling when guaranteed contracts were being offered in the mid-1990s. Instead, he helped WWE overcome its rival and by the time the Attitude Era rolled around, he was the face of the WWE.
The Attitude Era, Calaway noted, presented a different series of challenges for his Undertaker character. It was edgier. No holds barred. Raw.
That called for a change, he said.
“I made the real big change when I went to the American Badass (character) because I felt like I needed to let (the original character) rest for a little bit,” Calaway said. “I think I would have really struggled in the Attitude Era doing the old school Undertaker. The shackles were off and it was everything goes (at the time) and it would have been tough for me to compete, promo-wise, with backstage interviews and everything else that everybody was doing, guys like Stone Cold, The Rock, Triple H, Kurt Angle. It would have been really difficult for me to be true to the character.”
The character change from mysterious mortician to bike-riding badass was a success: Undertaker’s legend continued to grow while Calaway pushed himself outside his comfort zone.
And as predicted, when it was time to resurrect the old school Undertaker, he was as huge a star as ever.
“It was almost new again when I brought it back,” Calaway said. “I kept some of the elements from the American Badass, I had the original Undertaker elements there and then this hybrid version that we ended up with.”
As pro wrestling morphed into sports entertainment, Calaway was presented with new challenges to keep his character fresh and the mystery real. Ring entrances and music became an integral part of a well-packaged character.
As the American Badass, Taker drove a custom Harley Davidson motorcycle to the ring and featured a Kid Rock song as his entrance music. But as the Phenom, Calaway slowed the pace and revolutionized the ring entrance with the chilling gongs, smoke, lightning and fire. Occasionally, he would rise out of the floor, sometimes even rising up through the ring or through a ringside casket. The ring entrance, Calaway said, was arguably The Undertaker’s greatest weapon.
“That’s what sets the whole table, really,” he said. “You have this macabre, morbid-type character so the entrance is what kind of gets the imagination … it’s what kicks it in. It’s such a slow, methodical walk, the smoke and the fire and the music, it was so different from what everyone else was doing,” he said.
“That’s the same way I approached my interviews and everything. Most of the interviews (at the time) were ‘Well, let me tell you something, brother!’ Calaway said, offering an impression of Hulk Hogan. “Where I didn’t talk often. Paul Bearer did most of the talking, but when I did say something, I talked low and slow and it was like ‘whoa.’
“When somebody talks low, what do you do? You kind of lean in. You garner people’s attention that way. The entrance, obviously, that’s the setup to the match, and a lot of times the entrance was more important than the actual match that I was in. Obviously I’ve had matches that really stand out and people remember, but the entrance is what people are so mesmerized by.”
Calaway reflected on the greatest storyline of his career, that featuring The Undertaker, his then manager and “father” Paul Bearer and Kane, the long lost stepbrother who was thought to have died in a fire. The storyline played out over months and was among the most creative and well received in wrestling history.
“The Undertaker character was already on its way,” Calaway recalled. “(Creative) felt like we needed to switch something up so Paul turned on me and aligned with Mankind.”
That legendary feud not only propelled the career of Mick Foley, it led to the introduction of Kane. The rest, as they say, is history.
“We introduced what some, I guess, consider the greatest storyline ever. My long lost stepbrother who was supposed to have died in a fire and he is Paul Bearer’s son,” Calaway said.
“There was just so many layers to it and it all goes back to the very beginning of what I started because when I first started, I was introduced as Kane The Undertaker. Immediately, people where like ‘Whoa, I wonder.’
The story was so well told, Calaway noted, that fans were convinced that it had been in the works for years, which was not the case, Calaway said.
“People thought that had been in the plans for all those years and just waited for the right time to come loose, but it all just kind of fell together. The development of all three of the characters, they so intertwined each other forever. It was great.”
Calaway’s tone quickly turned serious as the subject turned back to the docuseries, which will see its third episode released on the WWE Network this weekend. The first two episodes have focused on Calaway’s tremendous efforts to prolong his storied career, through countless surgeries to grueling training and through tremendous pain.
It also has painted the picture of a man who made a career out of torturing the souls of opponents, but who now faces a tortured existence himself: Having to decide when to walk away from his first love.
“Obviously, you don’t do this business unless you just truly love it,” Calaway said. “You might try to attempt to do this business, but if it’s not in your heart and soul, you’re not going to be a success. You might be a flash in the pan. For most of my adult life, this is what I’ve done and I’ve done it at the highest level. I do realize that Father Time is tapping me on the shoulder. And I don’t want to turn around and face him.”
It’s evident when watching the series that Calaway is searching for a storybook ending for his character, but facing a number of factors conspiring against him, not the least of which is his age, at 55.
“I feel like I’ve got a match (left) that is befitting what I feel like that the legacy of The Undertaker deserves,” he said. “But the hard part is, if I grade myself, I grade myself on where I was physically in the early 2000s. I don’t grade myself on the curve of it being 2020 and being 55 years old.”
It’s a battle between heart, mind, body and soul.
“The expectations of what I have for myself, with the limitations that I have physically, it really is a delicate balance,” Calaway said. “You’ve got to take a really good look (and ask yourself), OK, is this the match that you’re looking for, is it in the realm of possibility and do I risk long-term damage?… I have young kids still,” he added. “Do you run the risk of jeopardizing your long-term health? All this is kind of what’s going on in my head during this docuseries. What I’m looking for and trying to achieve. Trying to come to grips with leaving that aspect of the business.”
Calaway Tombstoned any notion that he will ever truly retire.
“I’ll never, ever retire completely,” he said. “I may not get in the ring and wrestle anymore, but I’ll always somehow be involved I’m sure within the industry. For 30 years, I’ve been a mainstay in the ring.”
In a perfect world, Calaway knows how he’d like to end his in-ring career.
“I tell people all the time how jealous I am of Shawn (Michaels), he said, referring to Michaels’ retirement match in 2010, when The Undertaker defeated Michaels in a streak versus retirement match. “When we had the retirement match, he was such peace and was so content, he knew that he had done everything that he wanted to do and he got to go out on his terms and he went out on a match that was befitting his legacy.”
Calaway likens his own situation to those of NFL legends John Elway and Brett Favre.
“There’s the John Elway ending and there’s the Brett Favre ending,” he said. “John Elway wins the Super Bowl and retires. Brett Favre leaves the Packers and he goes to the Jets, then he goes to the Vikings and he just never gets there again. Then his last game is kind of sad. I’m trying really hard not to have that ending and coming to grips with the fact that I may not get the Elway ending. That’s what this whole process has been. I’m trying to weave a real intricate web here and I’ve got to make some really tough decisions very soon.”
If The Undertaker never wrestles again, his final match will have been his victory over AJ Styles at WrestleMania last month in a Boneyard Match. That match ended with him riding off on his Harley. Fitting, but perhaps not the ending he was seeking.
“It’s hard to say right now,” Calaway answered when asked if docuseries offered him closure should he never wrestle again. “We haven’t finished the last episode (of the docuseries). At this point right now, today, it’s hard to really give you a definitive answer.”
WrestleMania next year is scheduled for April in Los Angeles, but with COVID-19 still forcing WWE and other sports and entertainment companies to the sidelines or to perform without crowds, even next year’s Mania is anything but a guarantee.
Calaway is certain about one thing, however. He has no interest in another Mania match without fans.
“It would be tough to try to look forward to going and performing a match in an empty warehouse,” he said.
In fact, any Undertaker involvement at a future WrestleMania at this point is far from a guarantee, Calaway said.
“You never say never, but to make it to Mania again, it’s going to take something really, really juicy.”
Much as he was for his entire career, Calaway is more guarded when asked about how he views his own legacy.
“I guess there is a lot of layers to that,” he said. “Part of my legacy is that I’m proud of the fact that I never had to do anything lowdown or shady or backstabbing to (make it). I’m proud of the fact that everything that I achieved, I worked my tail off for. I’m proud of the fact that my peers looked upon me as a leader. I didn’t seek that out, it just happened. It’s really humbling to hear guys talk about my leadership in the locker room.”
And then there are his fans.
“I hope they understand what it meant to me or means to me to go out and perform and how seriously I took that when they would let me. Whether I was hurt or whether I wasn’t, I tried to go the ring and perform for them,” he said.
“I just hope that my legacy is that I gave everything I had for the business that I loved and I just hope people appreciate that and know how much I’ve loved these past 30 years.”
Mark Calaway, the man, will some day rest in peace, but his legacy, his character — The Undertaker – is eternal.
“The (Undertaker),” he said, taking a long pause. “I’m so proud. I wish I could say I had the foresight, but it was just a hunch, I guess, early on, of how I should handle the character. I guessed right and I have this character who will hopefully last the test of time and people will look back on it when I am done and say ‘Man, what a character The Undertaker was.’ ”
Calaway summed it up best during the second part of the series when he said: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
No Mark, you’re quite simply the greatest of all time.