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It was quite the eye opener to see adverts for a plain clothed Undertaker sitting opposite Steve Austin in a studio discussion setting. ‘Taker’s mask has slipped in recent years, what with a social media presence and the occasional interview publication. 2020, however, has seen Mark Calaway himself emerge to the forefront more than ever before. If the WWE Network’s “Broken Skull Session” whetted one’s appetite with regards to a peak behind that door, then The Last Ride five part series blew it off its hinges.
The Undertaker is ever a point of discussion for fans. Which is a testament to his longevity and impact on the industry overall, really. Like his character, that conversation has changed from one form to another. Several times over. Once the acknowledgement of his Wrestlemania streak came to be, and was then part of popular consciousness, his relevance always received a fresh boost around Springtime. What helped in the mid 2000s were those ‘Mania matches’ build and quality. Ones that spawned months long feuds with wrestlers who went on to be all time legends. Once you consider these were the true launching pads for Edge, Batista, and Randy Orton’s superstardom, you’ll notice a common denominator. Around the turn of the decade, Undertaker’s streak alone became the pull. His legend was regularly under threat, in the form of both Attitude Era namestays and internet darlings alike.
Once Brock Lesnar answered the question of whether or not his streak would ever end, another took its place. A question repeatedly asked by many since 2014. Following defeat to Roman Reigns at Wrestlemania 33, it was even strongly hinted at being answered. However, as the April returns, Saudi Arabian shows, and random summertime PPVs ramped up, any answer seemed out of reach. Just when was The Undertaker going to hang up his boots for good?
He addressed that question himself, both during the Steve Austin interview and in The Last Ride docuseries. At the end of the day, Mark Calaway is the one who decides, not the critics. As events played out over those five episodes, though, we saw the Dead Man slowly but surely come to terms with his own mortality. His body, a bloated and broken down shell of its former glory. His mind, stubborn but slowly coming to terms with that. Yet his heart, his love and respect for the business, as strong as it ever was. Undertaker found himself in quite the quandary.
His unwillingness to let go was encapsulated quite profoundly as he shuffled around backstage among his peers during 2017’s WWE Hall of Fame Ceremony. As he shot the breeze with countless personalities young and old, he gave off the air of a man not yet ready to leave the party. Catching one last crack, or delivering one last parting rib. Apart from interviews and rare photos, it was a side to The Undertaker rarely ever seen before. To be brutally honest, it was quite sad to see, personally. Not pity, as such. Rather, a reluctance to witness someone in visible pain. Someone still looking to hold court in an environment in which his days might be numbered. It seemed to foreshadow what transpired that Sunday against Roman Reigns. Which was, in essence, a lumbering struggle.
It was a performance Undertaker was highly critical of. So much so, the doubts around his own ability to still go really began to fester in his mind. Alongside the gentle nudges and pleas from his wife, Michelle McCool. He tricked himself and others into quieting them, though, both physically and mentally. The resurgence that came in the form of a glorified squash match against John Cena a year later did his reputation a world of good. As 2018 drew to a close, however, much goodwill was lost, thanks to a disastrous day at the office with Kane and DX. The jarringly contrasted lack of consistency followed last year also, as he looked to right the wrongs of that Goldberg match with an admittedly powerful showing with Roman Reigns against Shane McMahon and Drew McIntyre.
Although Undertaker’s 2019 ended well, the problem was that a clear pattern was emerging of more bad days than good. Whether his own doing or not. More importantly, Undertaker was finally beginning to realise that also. To the point that, even after his well received Extreme Rules performance, his first port of call was to tell the boss that his time was drawing to a close.
A common theme throughout the series was that of the loyalty Undertaker and Vince McMahon share with one another. One could argue that other, more famous or even lucrative faces belong on wrestling’s Mount Rushmore. Yet, no wrestler, past or present, has shown as much commitment to WWE as Mark Calaway. Thanks to this, his character arc is so storied, so full bodied, it is unparalleled. Helped along the way as it was by his steadfast dedication to kayfabe, ‘Taker remained a star attraction for almost all of his thirty years in the company. As well, behind the scenes, he was a constant. Through the steroid trials, the Monday Night Wars and Montreal Screwjob. The willingness to work while hurt. The desire to give back to the younger generation. On and on the list goes.
Consider that on- and off-screen impact Undertaker has had on the business for just a moment. Is it any wonder that Vince comes across as a proud and doting father when referencing him during interviews? Or when they interact backstage?
Perhaps that relationship’s strength is another reason Undertaker has been so reluctant to officially retire. That he didn’t want to let down the man who took a chance on him all those years ago. Especially after the lack of value he was perceived to have had in early WCW. A man, too, with whom he worked alongside in carving a path in the wrestling industry so long and so deep, its legacy will live on forever. We’ve all heard the stories implying that Vince McMahon is a hard man to say no to. Perhaps, though, the thought of saying no hardly ever crossed ‘Taker’s mind. Rather, that he wanted to show the same trust continually given to him over the decades.
Trust goes a long way in the wrestling business. However, there comes a time when you have to trust in those who have been the private support during the twilight years. The family and friends who keep house, home, and community when you’re gone. The wife who watches through her fingers as you’re fifty four year old neck is driven into the mat. The young child with limited time in which she can play chase or be lifted over your head.
Life can change for the worst in an instant, the chances even more so in professional wrestling. Even then, this has been the norm for Undertaker and his family for quite some time. A professional wrestling career is a bubble where many struggle to find an out. That vicious cycle ‘Taker found himself in looked set to repeat itself. Where he only pretended to himself that he could live forever. But it took tragedies from the outside world for him to fully acknowledge his humanity. Not that of The Undertaker, but of Mark Calaway. A family death. A basketball legend’s, also. Possibly even the current situation affecting millions worldwide. They all mounted up to the point that he had to admit that life is indeed finite. Plus, that the time has come to make the most of it while he can.
It’s fitting, then, that his presumed last outing was one that he, and WWE, can be proud of. A love letter to the three decades in which he was an anchor. A chance for Undertaker to show all three sides of his character. Or, as he termed it, the Unholy Trinity. Also, for the match to be in a setting surrounded by reminders of death, with him as the victor and leaving on his own two feet (…and wheels…), symbolises that his decision to retire wasn’t forcibly taken away from him. Instead, it is of his own volition, with his head held high.
For the countless memories. The moments and matches etched in time. To the last true gunslinger in WWE, thank you, ‘Taker. May you finally rest in peace.
Let me know your thoughts on the above column in the comments below, or @RickyandClive on Twitter.
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