The Phenom. The Deadman. Big Evil. No matter what name he is called, there can be nothing short of respect and admiration for the athlete and performer known as The Undertaker. For over a quarter century, fans of professional wrestling (and indeed anyone who appreciates athletics and theatrics) have been entertained, inspired and frightened by one of the most enduring personas to ever emerge from the squared circle.
On April 2, 2017, the WWE will produce the 33rd edition of its annual wrestling extravaganza “WrestleMania”, and once again The Undertaker will be a headliner. At 52 years old and 27 years in the WWE, The Undertaker’s in-ring career has been in question for quite some time. It seems now that 2017 may indeed be the last hurrah for this grim reaper and this WrestleMania will likely be his last. But this seemingly impending retirement shouldn’t be a cause for sadness, but really a celebration. A celebration of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, legacies in wrestling history. A celebration of a figure that will never be produced again and a character that has left impressions unlike anyone else. And a celebration of a man named Mark Calaway and his commitment, professionalism, and talent to make The Undertaker more than just a wrestling gimmick.
In the 1980s to mid-1990s, professional wrestling had gone through a second golden age of sorts with renewed commercial success and scores of new fans filling arenas. The WWF was at the forefront of this period producing stars like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Bret Hart. When a young Mark Calaway first entered the then WWF in 1990, he would have no idea that he would become a legend. The nearly 7 foot tall, 300 pounder was an intimidating presence but when WWF owner Vince McMahon bestowed upon him the moniker “The Undertaker”, the 25-year-old unknowingly sealed his place in wrestling lore.
Of course, it took work and a belief in the character to make it connect with audiences (or terrify them, especially in the early years). Coupled with Calaway’s incredible athleticism and commitment to the required theatrical nature of his persona, what could have been another failed gimmick became a genuine superstar. A superstar that would become an icon, and an icon that would become a veritable legend. With his manager Paul Bearer (William Moody), another immense entertainer, The Undertaker increasingly grew in popularity and presented to audiences things they had never seen before. His slow mournful walk to the ring, his “supernatural powers”, and his unmistakeable look stunned fans but simultaneously awed them. From being scary to being awesome, this is perhaps the most enduring part of Undertaker’s legacy; to this day he still commands attention and still puts on a show that captures the imagination in a unique way.
Naturally, people and things change, and The Undertaker as a living creation brought to life now in a most masterful way by Calaway would also change with time. Since 1990 he’s undergone a series of transformations. From the original Western Mortician to the Lord of Darkness, to the American Bad Ass, and now back as The Phenom, no matter what incarnation The Undertaker appeared in he still dominated the competition and proved his excellence. Throughout his career, he’s also been behind the creation of several of WWE’s most original matches and took part in the majority of them. They include the Casket Match, the Buried Alive Match, the Inferno Match, Boiler Room Brawl, and the infamous Hell in a Cell.
And as if his constant presence and participation in the top tier of WWE’s programming weren’t enough, his championship and in-ring accomplishments speak for themselves. He’s a 4 time WWE Champion, 3-time Heavyweight Champion, a Royal Rumble match winner, and has the esteemed and incredible record of 21 consecutive victories at WrestleMania.
Professional wrestling is a mix of athleticism and performance art, and Mark Calaway has perfected the two in an extraordinary way. In bringing to us The Undertaker he’s showcased not only his great physical strength and agility (especially for a big man) but a tremendous talent for entertainment. Without his engagement in the development of the character and eagerness to make him real, The Undertaker would not have lasted long past his 1990 debut. 27 years later and still the name The Undertaker remains truly special, thanks to the commitment Calaway has poured into the role. Can you roll your eyes back into your head? Would you be willing to obscure your real identity for many years to promote the image that a supernatural funeral director really exists? As an athlete and perhaps more so as an entertainer, The Undertaker is an unmatched creation that has enriched the wrestling world.He’s macabre and ghoulish and truly spectacular. When the lights go down and the gong sounds you know a truly unforgettable figure is about to make his way to the ring.
So as we await WrestleMania 33, the question arises again, will this be The Undertaker’s last? At this point, he has exceeded the in-ring life expectancy of most performers, and he is certainly battered after years of high-profile matches. But ultimately he’s earned the right to ride off into the sunset and hang up his hat (literally and figuratively) for giving fans and promoters alike a truly unprecedented run. So if The Undertaker does indeed retire after Sunday, it should be a time of applause. There has never been a figure like him, both in longevity and pure creativity. The Undertaker’s Last Ride then will be an emotional send off for fans but a happy goodbye. Mark Calaway gave pro wrestling his gifts and the industry has never been the same.