This piece was originally written during our ‘Undertaker Weekend’ in June 2020. We are republishing this ahead of Undertaker’s ‘Final Farewell’ at Survivor Series.
In lockdown, it’s been easy for one day to blend into the next and to lose track of time.
However, one thing that has been a highlight of the weekend and has confirmed to me that it’s Sunday is the next episode of The Undertaker: The Last Ride documentary dropping on the WWE Network.
It’s become something that I’ve found fascinating, because it’s lifted the veil on something that we have never really seen before: the man behind the character, Mark Calaway.
Backstage stories of the man are prevalent and the legends are well known, but now for the first time, we’re able to see for ourselves what he is really like.
It’s answering the questions that our natural human curiosity raises, in the same way that, if we ever hear that a friend has met somebody famous, our first question is always “what were they like?”.
We ask that question because we all know the on-screen persona of that celebrity, but we really want to know what they’re like when they’re not ‘on’, performing to an audience. Well, this documentary answers those questions.
But why is it so fascinating, moreso than any other ‘real life’ documentary on the Network?
The answer is simple yet complex, all at once. The Undertaker is the most enduring character in WWE history.
We know his real name is Mark Calaway, we know that he previously wrestled in WCW as Mean Mark Callous before coming to the WWF, we know he is a biker because of the American Badass phase of his character, we know that he’s married to Michelle McCool. But other than that, we don’t really know an awful lot about him at all.
He’s the one guy who doesn’t publicly appear at the annual Hall of Fame ceremony because it wouldn’t fit in with the aura of his character, although, as The Last Ride has shown, he is there, just backstage.
Compare what we know of Mark Calaway compared to what we know of, say, Colby Lopez (Seth Rollins) or Drew Galloway (Drew McIntyre). It’s a tiny fraction by comparison, because The Undertaker is an old-school gimmick.
In the early 1990s, there was no internet, no social media, and there was a definite divide between the stars and their fans. Even when wrestling companies began having an online presence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I remember being told by the promoters at the time that we were not to interact with fans out of character, quite the opposite of what happens nowadays.
While kayfabe was crumbling, some were still clinging on for dear life, and it was encouraged to have that barrier between the wrestlers and the wrestling fans. It was said to us by one promoter that, if you went to a Tina Turner gig (I guess this promoter must have been a fan!), you wouldn’t expect her to come out at the end, stand in the middle of the arena she’d been performing in, and start chatting to the fans.
The barrier preserved the mystique. The mystique preserved the fascination. The fascination preserved the ticket and record sales. And the exact same thing could be said for The Undertaker, or indeed any star of the era.
In the UK a generation before, there was a wrestler who also created a mystique around him. That man was called Kendo Nagasaki. He was a masked wrestler whose character was that he was a harkening back to the time of Samurai warriors.
Entering the ring in full kendo attire, he would throw salt in the ring, as seen in sumo wrestling as a purification ritual, and he very, very rarely lost. He even had the top half of one of his fingers missing, rumoured to be a Japanese Yakuza ritual. But nobody knew who he was.
He wasn’t a well-known wrestler donning a mask, he was seemingly a brand new wrestler on the scene. But he would take things one step further. He would arrive at the venue already in his mask, so that no fans waiting at the stage door of the venue could sneak a look at him. And then he would drive off away from the venue still in his mask.
He never, ever spoke in public, once famously appearing on Danny Baker’s BBC1 chat show as the only guest who never spoke! But even when he voluntarily unmasked in the 1970s, the mystique remained. Nobody knew who he was and nobody knew why he had unmasked. Then he put the mask back on again. Nobody knew why he did that, either.
Then a fan discovered that he wasn’t actually Japanese, and that his real name was Peter Thornley and he came from Stoke-on-Trent. Yet this still didn’t ruin his mystique, because the name Peter Thornley meant nothing to anyone anyway. He maintained his mystique by having no contact with wrestling fans, and preserving that barrier to a greater degree than anybody else in the business.
Indeed, it was only in 2018 that he took down that barrier, showed his face in public once more and released a book about his life, realising that, as a retired wrestler in his 70s, there was more benefit to him dropping the shield than keeping it up until his dying day. Letting people in actually gave him a new lease of life in the public eye and the ability to finally release his memoirs.
And that’s what inspired Mark Calaway to allow cameras to follow him, as he believed at the start of this project that his WrestleMania 33 match with Roman Reigns would be his last. He wanted to lift the veil and preserve his legacy, as opposed to his mystique, as he bowed out of the game.
So this prompts the question: could a character with the enduring intrigue and mystique of The Undertaker ever come around again?
The mood of these current times, this era of social media and interaction with not just the character but the actual real life person behind it, would point to the answer being a resounding no.
There was one person in the WWE who has been able to develop a small aura around him who was a potential character to fill this void: Bray Wyatt.
However, in recent weeks, we have seen him share pictures of his newborn baby daughter and tell a story of playing with action figures as a kid when his dad was wrestling in WCW.
These aren’t tweets about Bray Wyatt. These are tweets from Windham Rotunda, the real life man behind the character, and as a result, there is no mystique. There is no veil to lift one day.
It’s not his fault. This is the direction that professional wrestling has steered itself in this era of social media. The barrier of old isn’t there anymore, and while Tina Turner might not be chatting to her fans in the arena after a gig, she’s certainly talking with them on Twitter nowadays.
But with Undertaker already contemplating how to permanently bow out of this business, what if the WWE did want to try to replicate his success with a new ‘Phenom’? How would they go about it in this open era of social media and real life?
To start with, you’d need someone without much of a history. Sure, Undertaker performed briefly on a national stage with WCW, but he never made it big and was never a headliner. So his background was just a footnote when The Undertaker debuted. These days, there are people with literally no wrestling background, in the Performance Center, working in NXT. So that would be the best place to start.
But the WWE themselves would have to throw themselves behind the gimmick.
This might rub others up the wrong way, but The Last Ride has shown us that, in his 90s heyday, Taker absolutely LIVED the gimmick. Even when he was seen in public, in airports and hotels, he would always dress in black. When the WWE mandated that all of their wrestlers wear suits out of the ring, Taker was exempt from that rule to protect his gimmick. And until recently, he was nowhere to be found on social media.
While that’s not viable these days and actually would be detrimental to a wrestler getting over with fans, it would have to be a 100% in-character account if they were to appear on Twitter or such. If you have a nice night out with your partner, if you become a parent, you’d have to keep it to yourself. And most of all, you’d have to be booked strong from day one.
Look at Undertaker’s debut at the Survivor Series 1990, pinning the legendary Dusty Rhodes in his first WWF appearance. Again, this could rub some people up the wrong way, as they haven’t ‘paid their dues’, as the old saying goes. So Vince would have to be brave and have faith and confidence in that individual, and the individual would have to be headstrong and have a thick skin.
Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting for the right person to come along. And you’ll notice that I’ve not put a gender on this hypothetical person.
After decades of The Undertaker, why couldn’t that gap be filled by a female wrestler? Wouldn’t that be intriguing?