A new series giving unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to one of the biggest WWE Superstars of all time, The Undertaker, premiered after the Money in the Bank 2020 pay-per-view.
What insights did we gain into this snapshot of the last few years of the Deadman’s career?
For wrestling fans of a certain age, Survivor Series in 1990 was one of the most significant pay-per-views in history. No, not because of the Hulkamaniacs’ victory over the Natural Disasters, but because it marked the WWF debut of the Undertaker. With his chilling entrance, supernatural persona and astounding in-ring ability, it was a day that changed the shape of the WWF and professional wrestling forever.
Such is the enduring impact of the Phenom that he is recognisable by those who don’t even watch pro wrestling – a mark on pop culture that has been left by very few individuals over the last 30 years with the exception of the likes of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
Despite his longevity in the ring, Mark Calaway, the man behind the black coat and hat, is extremely elusive when it comes to giving interviews. In the digital age where wrestling podcasts are ten-a-penny, part of the Undertaker’s appeal over the years has been his ability to preserve some of the mystique about his character. In recent times, he has appeared on the Broken Skull Sessions with Steve Austin (well worth a watch if you are a WWE Network subscriber – Austin remains one of the best wrestling podcast hosts) but it is the latest documentary series, The Last Ride, that insight is provided beyond anecdote and road stories.
On the whole, WWE does a great job with these sorts of behind-the-scenes documentaries which offer a candid insight into their Superstars. With the focus on the individual rather than on a period in WWE history, it’s easy to avoid the trademark rewriting of history that can plague other WWE programming.
Starting with Chapter 1 in 2017 which marked the run-up to what was initially intended to be ‘Taker’s final match at WrestleMania 33 against Roman Reigns, we see the trials and tribulations faced by the Deadman before the big match.
One of the biggest reveals of the documentary, perhaps, is the impact of the Undertaker’s concussion from his match with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30, where ‘Taker’s Mania winning streak was ended after 21 undefeated appearances on the biggest stage of them all. The psychological impact of the severe concussion he suffered has been alluded to variously by the likes of Paul Heyman on his spoken-word tour but not spoken about so candidly by the Undertaker himself.
It was abundantly clear that the Undertaker was not in great shape heading into WrestleMania 33 but he was driven by the opportunity to pass the torch to Roman Reigns. One of the most marked things about The Last Ride is the respect shown to the Undertaker by his peers and the gratitude afforded to him by Reigns and other younger Superstars.
If you’ve already seen The Big Show’s Broken Skull Sessions interview, you will appreciate that it is a truth universally acknowledged that the Undertaker is a locker room leader and someone who everyone in the WWE locker room looks up to as a paragon of in-ring excellence. Given his accomplishments throughout his career, it’s not difficult to imagine why.
The real story here is one of vulnerability as we see how Calaway’s injuries have taken their toll. As he limps through the hotel lobby, cracking jokes with Roman Reigns, it’s obvious that ‘Taker was winding down, not out of choice but out of necessity. In a heartfelt moment, he describes wanting to bow out before people start saying “you should check him out 10 years ago”. The punishment that wrestlers put themselves through is unimaginable and this really calls into question WWE’s dubious care of their Superstars, such as it is.
There are other moments which spotlight the price of Calaway’s career in the shape of his knee injuries, such as a conversation between him and former WWE Superstar and former Le Champion of AEW Chris Jericho where they discuss the 80-yard entrance walkway to the ring on the day of WrestleMania 30. Will Calaway be able to make it that far without his knee injury being patently obvious to the tens of thousands of fans in attendance? Even during his last workout before the Roman Reigns match Calaway hopes that he won’t sustain another injury.
The footage of the match itself highlights the Undertaker’s struggle as he and Reigns botch a spot where Reigns goes to pick the Phenom up but the latter’s knee buckles. Something which, in the tease for chapter 2, we see doesn’t sit well with the perfectionist Undertaker.
The impact of the Undertaker’s loss to Roman Reigns is also shown through close-up shots of the fans in attendance, many of them stunned and yet more in floods of tears as ‘Taker stacks his trenchcoat and hat in the middle of the ring in a symbolic gesture of his seeming retirement. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t retire.
However, out of this vulnerability there is strength as the Undertaker’s mission to round out his career in the right way is commendable. His quest to do “what’s best for business” and “go out on his shield” belies his perfectionism, a trait which serves the fans well but ultimately comes at an immeasurable cost to his own health and well-being.
One can only hope, when looking at the footage of his wife Michelle McCool (herself a former WWE champion) and their children at ringside, that these latter-day matches are worth that toll. That, however, is a question that only time will reveal the answer to.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @goodmanstephenj. Thanks for reading!