Ahead of his final appearance at WWE’s Survivor Series 2020, The Undertaker looks back at his vast and illustrious career, spread across three decades, and the blood-soaked memories that came with it
When the lights go out in WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), the deafening silence among fans at the stadium is hard not to notice. It only takes a couple of seconds to send them into a trance, when the operator plays the sound of a bell tolling, which gets amplified in a cacophony of loud cheers and wolf-whistles.
There emerges a man, a deadman to be precise, from the darkness. His mystical aura, coupled with eerie theme music, smokes and fireworks, has made him a messiah and a pop culture phenomenon, for nearly three decades. Mark William Calaway, more known by his ring name The Undertaker, has been a towering figure for those born in the ‘90s and grew up in the noughties.
Naturally, there was palpable excitement when a handful of journalists from across the globe joined a Zoom call to meet “The Deadman”, ahead of his farewell on Survivor Series 2020, a pay-per-view event. Everyone had an Undertaker memory to share and everyone, perhaps, owned a piece of him. “I have been around for a while, for a while now,” says Mark Calaway, 55, from Austin, Texas, USA.
Three years back, The Undertaker “broke” his character for the first time at WrestleMania 33 when he was defeated by Roman Reigns in a dramatic win, which sealed Taker’s fate and brought his unparalleled WrestleMania record down to 23-2. Needless to say, it was the last straw. Taker left his hat, gloves and trench coat at the centre of the ring, along with his 27-year-long career, and kissed his wife Michelle McCool, who was in the audience. It was an emotional moment for fans; #TakerRetires was on everyone’s lips but never spoken out loud. The Deadman, as he is known, came back the next year, and has since made sporadic returns to WWE.
However, it was in the WWE-produced docuseries The Last Ride, a documentary that gave an insider’s look into The Undertaker’s career, where he announced his decision to call it a day. Earlier in June, Taker made it official. He has not yet figured out his Plan B, although there have been whispers that a career in politics might be on the cards. “I’m still looking back and somehow amazed at my 30-plus years in the industry. It’s not that I am no longer part of WWE after this Sunday; it has always been my place,” he begins, “Though you may not see me very often in the ring, I’ll still be around working with upcoming talent, sharing my insight and experience.”
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
The Undertaker has been a headliner on numerous occasions and has fought wrestlers in a range of fights — from Locker Room Brawl, Hell In A Cell, Casket Matches to Inferno, in which the stage was set ablaze. While preparation is one aspect for such marquee events, Calaway feels that it was important for him to take time out and think on the events that led up to that particular match. “When you are going to be buried alive in a match, obviously there have been serious things that have happened along the way to get to this point. That’s why it has always been about storytelling and not so much about moves,” says the 6-foot-10-inch tall star.
But he also believes that wrestlers hardly get the time to process once they enter the area, for which the price they eventually pay is on the heavier side, sometimes. “For an Inferno match, for instance, you just hope that you aren’t the guy getting caught in the fire. As morbid as it sounds, it fits what I do,” he laughs.
Dead Man walking
- The Deadman’s signature moves, like the character, have evolved over the years starting with a simple yet effective move called Old School. In the early 2000s, Taker switched to The Chokeslam, a move that was associated with other WWE superstars such as Kane, The Big Show, Ric Flair and The Great Khali to pick a few. He flirted with what’s called a Power Bomb for a brief period in his career during the “Biker Taker” era. Perhaps the most popular and lethal finishing move that he is known for is The Tombstone Piledriver, which has now become a part of his rich legacy.
- Taker took on Kurt Angle and The Rock in Vengeance 2000 but it was the latter who walked out with The Undisputed Title. Though Brock Lesner and Taker have faced each other on many occasions, their match in Hell In A Cell in 2002’s No Mercy remains to be one of their biggest encounters. The Deadman’s most famous in-ring feud with Shawn Michaels resurfaced when the duo clashed at WrestleMania 25 in 2009, which ended with Taker triumphing Michaels. His other memorable fights include the one where he was defeated by Bret Hart in Summerslam 1997; with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for the WWE Championship at WWE Backlash 2002; with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, which was dubbed as the “End of an Era” match, and his clash with CM Punk and Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 29 and 33.
- In his vast and illustrious career, Taker has had myriad theme songs for his entrance, the most iconic of which remains to be ‘Rest In Peace’, composed by Jim Johnston. His defeat to Brock Lesner at WrestleMania 30, is said to be one of the most-watched matches in the history of WWE.
- His last match was against AJ Styles at WrestleMania 36. There have been rumours that WWE might bring back some of Taker’s old-time pals and superstars Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Ric Flair and Kurt Angle, to bid farewell to the legend.
What Calaway feels most fans wouldn’t understand is that, a wrestler can lose a match and be elevated to a higher status at the same time, especially if the opponent is a superstar. That is what happened when Jeff Hardy almost beat him in a ladder match back in 2000. Looking back, Calaway says he was proud to put the spotlight on someone like Hardy, who was up-and-coming then.
That, however, was not the case when Brock Lesner broke his unbeaten 21-0 record, known as The Streak, in 2014 by winning WrestleMania 30. This was around the same time when Taker started appearing less on WWE, although he says preparing for WrestleMania is taxing in its own way. “Selfishly, you didn’t want The Streak to end. But I don’t think Brock needed that win, though I had no problem doing it,” says Calaway, about the (in)famous match, “I felt the win would have elevated Roman Reigns or Bray Wyatt. In fact, I think Roman could have used that victory more than anybody. He adds that although he is satisfied with the management and a multi-billion product, storytelling, he says, has been a miss lately.
Storytelling and the way his character arc has evolved over the years are what made Taker, perhaps, the greatest wrestler in the history of all-time. Thirty years ago, he was introduced as Kane The Undertaker when he debuted at Survivor Series in 1990, fetching an instant win in his first match.
Calaway fondly recalls the time he first met Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of WWE, in Stanford, when the latter outlined the character and showed him a storyboard of how Taker would look like, and what he was destined for. “Mark Calaway and The Undertaker intersected almost immediately and I gravitated towards the character. There was a lot of stuff I could relate to on a personal level,” he says.
My life’s philosophy
- The biggest lesson that wrestling has taught Mark Calaway is to not take things for granted and live in the moment. “On any given night or match, you are close to something catastrophic happening to you. Most people don’t think about it and as a talent, you shouldn’t too. You might be on the top of the world, but it’s important to treat people the way they have to be. Because, we are all in this together.”
But, embodying the character for so long has had a domino effect on Calaway, who says he has become a recluse, to maintain the character’s mystery. “I had to become somewhat of a recluse in my personal life. I became anti-social to make sure the character was legitimate and made it a part of my life,” he says, adding, “But, hey, I can’t complain. It’s not as horrible as it sounds.”
If not The Undertaker, is there a superstar character he wished he had been? “It would be tough not to wanna be Ric Flair,” he says with a laugh, “I always thought his character was flamboyant but not exactly, because he set the bar for guys of my generation.”
Flirting with death
In his line of work, Calaway is only an inch or two away from taking a lethal blow. He admits that there have been days when he felt he has hit rock bottom. He was resurrected by the undying love and admiration fans have for him. Mark Calaway is and has been a dominating figure, a hero, for at least two generations of fans — “You don’t really think about how you affect someone on a personal note. One of the things I would like to do post retirement is to meet fans and get to know their stories. You can’t take advantage or understate that emotion.”
The blood and sweat that he shed inside the ring was worth it, after all. “A fan walked up to me and said, ‘I was having a horrible time in my life. Watching you in the ring helped me navigate through it.’ Now, think about hearing that story on a day-to-day basis,” says Calaway, adding, “Sometimes, the character gave them hope; sometimes, courage. It’s humbling that you have that kind of effect on people.”
Death is a recurring motif that has engulfed The Undertaker’s life for the past 30 years. He has been set on fire multiple occasions and has been buried alive on the show, only to rise from the dead like a Phoenix. Unfortunately, there won’t be any resurrections this time.
Watch Survivor Series 2020 on November 23 at 5.30am IST on Sony Ten 1 and Sony Ten 3