Regardless of what the myth might tell you, The Last Ride is not the first WWE “documentary” where The Undertaker drops character. 2001’s DVD This Is My Yard acknowledged his WCW past and, as she was a part of the storylines at the time with the interminable DDP stalker angle, his wife of the time Sara was part of that process. There was even a clip of him “tapping out” to her as she applied wrestling holds.
But regardless of that, it’s clear that The Last Ride is by far a cut above that interesting curio. Never has “Mark Calaway” been the sustained focus of a WWE release. Yes, the importance of his career and the respect that he commands as a wrestler seeps through the five shows that make up this series. But this isn’t about a character. This is about a man. A human being, with fears, failings and regrets like all of us.
At its heart it’s a simple tale. A legend wants to bow out the “right way”, on a high, with his fans and his peers all acknowledging that he went out whilst he still had something left to give. But as any sports fan will know, that isn’t always the easiest thing to do. The mere fact that this series covers so many potential “last rides” says it all.
Episode 1, The Greatest Fear sums this up. It’s 2017 and Calaway is a man who knows that he can’t be what he once was. A full schedule is beyond him. But once or twice a year he can still be that legend…or can he? A look back at WrestleMania 30 and the end of the Streak shows a match that Taker can’t remember. A match that saw him concussed and spending the night in hospital. Worse than that, in one sense anyway, it stripped him of his confidence. Two years later, Taker admits that that self-doubt was still there, a fact not unnoticed by Triple H.
The main focus of episode one, after the scene setting, is Taker’s first last ride, WrestleMania 33’s match with Roman Reigns. It’s clear from footage taken before the event that Taker is far from being in “match shape”. Perhaps if he had been, this documentary would have been a one part thing. Had Taker been able to perform to his standards would he have taken that as the time to walk away, the time that had seemingly come given his post-match routine of laying down his coat and hat in the middle of the ring. Even his wife Michelle McCool thought that when he “broke character” and kissed her at ringside after the match that that was that.
Of course, Taker didn’t want to bow out like that. Hence episode two, The Redemption.
The physical pain of a lifetime in the ring naturally led to a lot of surgeries. Here we take a look at Calaway’s second major hip surgery and it’s telling that afterwards he’s so happy merely to be walking without pain. As his wife says though, it’s a double edge sword. He’s pain free, but that means that those nagging mental doubts about letting down his own high standards in the match against Reigns come back to the fore.
Taker sets out to get back into ring shape, but caveats it with a backstop of him only coming back if someone got hurt and Vince needed a Plan B for Mania…you may believe him, you may not. His match with John Cena at Mania 34 is the match focus on this episode, but more interesting is the look at his relationship with his wife and with the main man himself, Vince McMahon.
It’s clear that McCool is his rock and at times it’s clear she knows him better than he even know himself. She puts over the strong relationship between him and Vince, saying that both men would take a bullet for each other. McMahon says he’s the most loyal performer he’s ever dealt with and gets very emotional when asked what Calaway means to him on a personal level. And it’s perhaps why Taker is a little guarded about his match with Cena. Clearly a success on one level, the fact that it was only a few minutes long means it wasn’t the send off he’d envisioned.
Which is why when we get to episode three, End of an Era, Calaway shares, a few years after the fact, that whilst the match was fine professionally it left him empty personally. If it had been what he envisioned he might have been able to walk away for good. What is interesting though it almost what isn’t said. It seems odd that Taker and Vince wouldn’t discuss what was happening at Mania, in a feature match. Is this classic “keep them guessing” kayfabe stuff to an extent? Who knows.
One theory could be that it would keep Taker “fresher” for the big money overseas shows. Taker’s matches with Rusev and even with Triple H in Australia weren’t part of the “grand send off” idea, but it seems as if the tag match pitting him and Kane against Shawn Micheals and Triple H was. What was seen as a “night off” in terms of just going out there and having fun and tearing it up proved to be nothing of the sort. Candidly, all concerned freely admit it was a disaster. And as Michelle McCool knows, this means that the closure Taker needs to finish his career will still need to be found…
And anyone who has been paying attention will know that that closure did not come with the now infamous match with Bill Goldberg. Not that that is the only focus of Episode four. That kicks off with the Starrcast II situation, where Taker had been booked for an autograph singing at the event, which was running parallel to a show from AEW (who naturally are not named at any point on here). This is another point in the story where you get the impression that you’re not hearing ALL of the story. Calaway says he had no idea about the AEW connection, which could be true, but it’s clear Vince took offence and may even have been concerned that rumours of Taker “defecting” could have been true. What is clear is that it did lead to a (temporary) falling out between the two.
WrestleMania 35 is touched upon, where a “healthy” Undertaker isn’t booked to perform. He’s there and suggests that he wouldn’t want to be on the card just for the sake of it but it’s clear from the interview taped sometime later that he was disappointed not to be put on the show. Again there seems to be a story behind the story we’re being told that we don’t get to see. Some candid footage of him and Vince backs this up but doesn’t delve any deeper.
The Goldberg match is looked at in some detail, albeit without any input from Bill himself. There’s little more that can be said about what was a disaster of a match other than it once again led Calaway to consider whether or not it was worth carrying on. He did of course return at Extreme Rules, to team with Roman Reigns to take on Shane McMahon and Drew McIntyre although it’s revealed that this match was “accepted” before the Goldberg match was put on the table. For once the match goes well enough for Calaway to talk openly that it might have been a good one to go out on. Within a moment though, he’s back to thinking he “might have a couple more left”.
The final episode focuses, match wise, on the Boneyard Match with AJ Styles at WrestleMania 36. Really though it’s an episode spent summing up the mental battle that Mark Calaway has been having for many years. When is the right time to bow out? What is a meaningful send-off? Can he ever have the “perfect ending” to his career?
The answer is never really forthcoming. Calaway seems happy with his match with AJ and if there’s any doubt about whether walking away after a match like that rather than after a traditional “wrestling” match it’s clear that he is at least happy with that match.
The Last Ride has to go down as one of THE best things the WWE have ever produced. There are minor quibbles (for all the unprecedented access we have to Mark Calaway here it is clear that there are still some things off limits and at times it’s obvious there’s stories behind the stories that we’re hearing) but by the same token you can respect that there are some things that perhaps should be kept private between the people concerned.
As well as seeing and portraying The Undertaker in a completely different light to what we’ve seen before the use of the talking heads throughout is spot on. Whether it’s his partners and opponents such as Kane, Shawn Michaels and Triple H talking about the matches or former foes such as Mick Foley and Edge surmising about his career and legacy and acknowledging just how difficult it can be to walk away on your own terms everyone brings something to proceedings. There’s no moments that come across as padding.
If you’ve been a wrestling fan for any of the thirty years of the Undertaker’s career then this is a must watch. Such is the universal nature of the personal story told, one that will resonate far beyond wrestling circles, I’d argue that it’s a must watch for any non-wrestling fan too. He may be playing a “dead man” in a “pre-determined” form of entertainment, but Mark Calaway’s story is one that can speak to us all.
10 out of 10
Photographs courtesy of Fetch and WWE. Thank you to WWE Home Video for our review copy of The Last Ride which is out Monday 23 November on DVD and Blu Ray, as well as limited Special Edition Blu Ray. You can buy your copy from WWEDVD.co.uk by clicking here.
You can find me on Twitter @IWFICON