The Deadman, Big Evil, American Badass. No matter the name, there can be nothing short of respect and admiration for the athlete and performer known as The Undertaker. For 30 years, 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 Sunday, November 22, 2020, 30 years to the date since his debut at the Survivor Series 1990, The Undertaker will finally hang up the proverbial boots or, in this case, his hat, leaving behind a legacy of wrestling excellence unparalleled in modern times. This impending retirement should not be a cause for sadness but a celebration. A celebration of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, legends in wrestling history. A celebration of a figure that will never be produced again. And a celebration of a man named Mark Calaway and his commitment, professionalism, and talent to make The Undertaker more than just another 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. Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was at the forefront of producing superstars like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Bret Hart. When a young wrestler named Mark Calaway entered into the WWF, he would have no idea that he would be about to embark on would become perhaps the most incredible wrestling story ever told. The nearly 7-foot-tall, 300 pounder was an intimidating presence, but when Vince McMahon bestowed upon him the moniker “The Undertaker,” the then 25-year-old unknowingly sealed his place in wrestling lore.
At first glance, the notion of a supernatural mortician, impervious to pain, seems to be a rather hokey cartoon-like creation; and indeed it is, but Calaway’s commitment to the role allowed The Undertaker to transcend the confines of believability and become beloved by fans.
It would take work and a belief in the character to connect with audiences (or terrify them, especially in the early years). Still, it soon became apparent that what fans were seeing was more than just another wrestling gimmick. Coupled with Calaway’s incredible athleticism and embodiment of 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 that had never been seen before. The iconic dirge and his slow, mournful walk to the ring, the supernatural powers and mind games, and his unmistakable 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 respect and always puts on a show that uniquely captures the imagination. When the lights go down, and the gong sounds, you know a genuinely unforgettable figure is about to make his way to the ring. So theatrical have his entrances become, including the appearance of Druids and ominous chanting, that even if one were not interested in the ensuing match, the entrance alone would captivate them.
Of course, people and things change naturally, and The Undertaker as a living creation would also change with time. Since 1990 he has undergone a series of transformations, always refining his image but never ceasing to amaze. From the original Western Mortician to the Lord of Darkness, to the American Bad Ass, and 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 has also been behind the creation of several of WWE’s most original matches and took part in most of them. They include the Casket Match, the Buried Alive Match, the Inferno Match, Boiler Room Brawl, and the infamous Hell in a Cell. These highly original and frankly outlandish match stipulations like the character seem at face value just ridiculous, but their place in wrestling lore now cannot be disputed.
As if his constant presence and participation in the top tier of WWE’s programming were not enough, his championship and in-ring accomplishments speak for themselves. A 4-time WWE Champion, 3-time Heavyweight Champion, a Royal Rumble match winner, and the esteemed and incredible record holder of 21 consecutive victories at WrestleMania, he has competed against the greatest names in the business, including Bret Hart, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Mick Foley, Kane and many, many more.
After all this time, The Undertaker remains truly special, thanks to the commitment Mark Calaway has poured into the role. An unmatched respect for the industry and its secrecy allowed this “magic mortician” to remain relevant for three decades.
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 exists in reality? As an athlete and perhaps more so as an entertainer, The Undertaker is an unmatched creation that has enriched the wrestling world. He is macabre and ghoulish and truly spectacular.
Professional wrestling is a mix of athleticism and performance art, and Mark Calaway has perfected the two extraordinarily. In bringing us The Undertaker, he has showcased not only his great physical strength and agility (especially for a big man) but a tremendous talent for entertainment. Without his engagement in developing the character and eagerness to make him real, The Undertaker would not have lasted long past his 1990 debut. Thirty years later and still, the name The Undertaker creates awe. The memories created by this man will last a lifetime and ironically will not die. More than just a wrestler, The Undertaker is an institution of originality, longevity, and above all, exceptionalism.
He has now earned the right to ride off into the sunset and hang up that hat (literally and figuratively) for giving fans and promoters alike a truly unprecedented run. So, when The Undertaker does indeed retire after Sunday, it should be a time of applause. There has never been, nor will there ever be again, a figure like him, both in continuity and pure creativity. The Undertaker’s Last Ride will then be an emotional send-off for fans, but a happy goodbye filled with gratitude and nostalgia. Rather than a mournful funeral service, the tears to be had will be of thanks. Mark Calaway gave pro wrestling his gifts and left us with the legend of The Undertaker, forever changing the wrestling game while enriching our imaginations.