While many WWE superstars, Legends, and Hall of Famers have had their own standalone documentary, sometimes more than once, there has only been one man who has deserved a behind the scene series. That man is Mark Calaway, better known as The Undertaker.
As a wrestling fan since the age of 5 (I’m 33 now), The Undertaker has always been part of my WWE fandom in some form or another. I remember him and Paul Bearer bagging up jobbers on episodes of Superstars and Wrestling Challenge when I was a child. I remember watching Yokozuna and an army of heels beat ‘Taker down into a casket, only for him to awake from the dead and ascend to the top of the arena. As a teenager, I recall his battles with Mankind in the boiler room and, of course, that Hell in a Cell match. From the Ministry of Darkness to his reinvention as the “American Badass” to being “Big Evil” to his return as “The Phenom”, I’ve watched Mark Calaway’s career grow to legendary status.
For years, the man behind The Undertaker veil was, for the most part, a mystery. Whether it was staying in-character during public appearances, or keeping his personal life private, Calaway’s life away from the ring was very rarely mentioned. However, in recent years he’s changed his stance becoming more open. For me, his interview with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Sessions was thoroughly enjoyable and left me wanting to hear more of Calaway’s tales of life in the wrestling business. Thankfully, The Last Ride documentary series fulfilled that hunger.
The limited series follows Calaway and his career over the past four years; battling the thought of retirement, resisting the temptation to step in the ring once more, horrified by bad matches and suffering from a life of bumps, bruises, injuries and surgeries.
After being defeated by Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 33, Taker’s poignant exit where he left his iconic hat and coat in the ring was the perfect ending to his career. But then Calaway watched the match back, cringing at the mistakes and how it wasn’t the flawless finale he had hoped for. It’s here that you realise the personal torment he puts himself through. He’s chasing the dragon of the ideal ending.
Ultimately, he’s seeking redemption. Calaway doesn’t want to become a parody of his former self. Following another surgery, this time it’s his right hip being replaced, he’s pain-free for the first time in years. With the relief comes the worry from his wife, Michelle McCool. She worries that he is going to feel the urge to step back into the ring. She just wants him to enjoy a pain-free life with their daughter. Throughout the series, McCool serves as Mark’s emotional anchor and supporter, being at his side through the highs and lows. While it’s another close relationship that is the pull that prevents ‘Taker from moving away.
The relationship between Calaway and Vince McMahon is way beyond that of a boss and their employee. There is trust, respect and loyalty between them, built upon a partnership of 30 years. It is the latter of these traits that is considered the most vital for both of them. “He’s my boss, my friend, he’s been like a dad, he’s been like a brother. He’s been all of it to me,” says Mark when reflecting on their relationship. It is through blind loyalty that Vince convinces Mark to consider returning to the ring. If Vince needs him, he’s ready to answer.
By February 2018, Mark is training and sends a tape to Vince saying “I’ll see you in New Orleans,” the scene of WrestleMania 34. We see the gruelling training he puts his ageing body through, determined to prove the doubt within himself wrong. In New Orleans, he returned and defeated John Cena in a short match yet he felt good about how it went. He’s thankful to Vince for the opportunity.
In the years that follow, he steps in the ring a few times more with varying results. Each time he feels it’s time to hang up his boots, he’s not satisfied with the closure. Being absent at WrestleMania 35 merely grows his hunger to end things right. However, disastrous outings against D-Generation X and Goldberg are a shot of reality of how much longer Mark Calaway can go. Yet a positive tag team match at Extreme Rules 2019 sees Calaway’s mindset change.
On the fifth and final chapter, Revelation, the series is poignantly tied up. After seeking out the perfect ending for years, he finds acceptance that it’s time to walk away. The emotional episode sees Calaway face up to reality, questioning what he can do next and how to replace the high of hearing the roar of the crowd. It is the fans who have given him the strength to pull through the tough moments. There are countless tales within the entertainment industry of people struggling to replace that admiring high. Unfortunately, some turn to substance abuse or simply go down a dark road. For Mark Calaway, he’s struggled to walk away. It’s hard to walk away from something you’re so engrossed in and for so long. He wants to retire on his own terms.
He realises being present with his family is his priority. This comes to fruition following the sudden death of his brother, Tim, on the eve of filming the Boneyard Match with AJ Styles this past April. We’re taken behind the scenes of how the match with Styles came together; how ‘Taker enjoys working with smaller guys such as Rey Mysterio, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle and CM Punk. While Styles’ heated and personal promo on the March 9th edition of RAW leads to Calaway discuss how and why the character of The Undertaker has changed throughout the years; the need to evolve and not stagnate.
In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania 36, there is the unseen emergence of ‘The Unholy Trinity’ – the combination of Mark Calaway, the character of The Undertaker and his “American Badass” persona. Although the COVID-19 pandemic sees the situation and plans change, they turned “chicken shit into chicken salad” with the Boneyard Match.
The final portion of the episode sees Calaway at peace, accepting his time as an in-ring performer is over. He sees the bigger picture now, and that is his family. With comments from a host of peers, friends and former foes, it’s clear that this is a man who is truly well-respected within the wrestling industry.
As a fan, it’s tough to see someone you’ve watched for so long to fight and resist giving up something they have done for years. Nothing may last forever but The Undertaker’s legacy has a good chance of doing so.
From the very start of The Last Ride, I found a whole new level of respect for Mark Calaway. The sacrifice and torment he put himself (and his family) through are truly admirable. This is a man who has built not only his career but also others as he has repeatedly given back to his peers and colleagues. He doesn’t need to do anything more. He’s found closure and I’m happy for the man that is Mark Calaway.
Some people may mock the phoney nature of the industry, but The Last Ride perfectly showed the reality behind the sights and sounds of the wrestling business. These people are human. They have families. They have emotions. They have their highs and lows. However, after 30 years, Mark Calaway can walk away, knowing he has left a lasting impact on an industry that has embraced him, influencing many, many people for years to come.
I’m sure many of you will join me by simply saying “Thank You ‘Taker” as he rides off into the sunset.
Undertaker: The Last Ride Series is available on WWE Network.
Photos and video courtesy of WWE.