The Undertaker is one of the most recognisable names in wrestling, but when his career began in 1990, Mark Calaway had no idea what lay ahead.
"When I first met with [WWE chairman and chief executive] Vince [McMahon] and he showed me the storyboards of what his Undertaker looked like, I did not see in the fine print 'this will last 30 years' – that's nuts," he tells The National.
As he prepares for his farewell to the WWE Universe at Survivor Series on Sunday, November 22, we chat with Calaway about how The Phenom (as he's known) came to be as well as his favourite wrestling moments.
From the basketball court to the squared circle
Calaway was born in Houston, Texas, and was active in sport from a young age. As a member of the American football and basketball teams in high school, he went to university on a basketball scholarship before deciding to drop out. While he considered playing professional basketball in Europe, he instead decided to take another path: one that led him to professional wrestling.
Scroll through our gallery below to see The Undertaker through the years:
He began training in 1986. After taking part in wrestling promotions for a few years, Calaway was given the opportunity to make his debut for the WWF Survivor Series in November, 1990. McMahon presented the character of a "dead man" at the meeting and Calaway recalls feeling instantly drawn to the gimmick.
“The character, the likeness, the name, Vince had all that,” he says. “It was all his brainchild. He was just waiting for somebody to come along that he felt would fill that gimmick. I think he needed a big guy with no personality and here I come knocking on the door. I gravitated to the character immediately.”
And so, The Undertaker was born. Debuting as the mystery partner on Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Team, he can still recall exactly how he felt making his way to the ring that day.
“That stiff, slow walk, that was more nerves than it was character at that time. I was extremely nervous. I knew waiting in the ring were the likes of Bret Hart, Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart, Dusty Rhodes, Koko B Ware, all these guys and I’m about to go out there and annihilate all of them,” he says. “Needless to say, I was extremely nervous, thinking ‘don’t trip, don’t fall’ – it could have been all over before it got started.”
Only a year later, The Undertaker would win his first world championship at the next Survivor Series by defeating Hulk Hogan, another favourite memory for Calaway.
Career hits and misses
With many highs came some lows, but Calaway says he doesn't regret much from his career, although he mentions that he didn't feel strongly about the Corporate Ministry storyline he was part of in 1999. It was a stable created from two factions: The Corporation and the Ministry of Darkness, to take on the likes of other wrestlers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
“The Corporate Ministry, to me, got a little cheesy, but what am I going to do? It started out really cool and we just kind of added way too much stuff to it,” he says. “Vince got involved, then Shane [McMahon, Vince's son] and it was just like a little too much.”
But the positive memories far outweigh the negative ones. His all-time favourite moment is his match against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 25 in 2009. He cites their “unbelievable chemistry together” as part of the reason the match was so well received.
“I tell people this all the time, but Shawn Michaels could have a great match with a broomstick,” he says. “That’s just how good he is. It’s just magical when you don’t have to necessarily think for the other guy in the ring. It’s very rare you have matches that are that smooth. I’m really proud of that match.”
Middle East fan following
Even though he has wrestled only a few times in recent years, The Undertaker’s appeal in the Middle East is still at an all-time high. Back in February, fans who attended Super ShowDown in Riyadh wore his merchandise and brought signs specifically for The Undertaker as rumours swirled that he would be making an appearance at the event.
“I am aware of the fact that I have a huge following [in the Middle East] and I appreciate it,” he says. “I appreciate it so much. And for fans, especially so many young fans who really didn't even get to see me in my heyday – just the outpouring of affection by the fans is great. It always helps me go out and feel a little bit better and perform a little bit better. Just feeding off of their energy. They're great and I hope that we get to do more over there.”
Saying goodbye at Survivor Series
While it certainly looks like The Dead Man is finished with in-ring wrestling, he does mention that if he were to return, there is one wrestler he would like to take on.
“If I was to get back in the ring, I think there’s unfinished business I’d have with AJ Styles. I’d very proud of the Boneyard Match but obviously that came about due to Covid and all that. I would have liked to have a match with AJ in the ring," he says.
"I think he's probably the greatest worker of this generation right now. He's just so good, and can work with anybody; closest person that really reminds me of Shawn as far as in-ring ability. There's a few other guys, but he's definitely at the top of the page."
But looking back on his legacy, Calaway doesn't have much he needs to prove any more. He's already cemented himself as one of the greatest WWE wrestlers. And while he doesn't average 250 dates a year in the ring like he once did during an eight or nine-year stretch, there's never been any doubt about his dedication to the industry. "I didn't have any idea that I would be here 30 years later. And still be relevant? No way. I don't think anybody, especially in this industry, can foresee 30 years down the line," he says.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed. I’ve had incredible people to work with and people surrounding me to help get us where we are today.”
WWE's Survivor Series airs on Monday, November 23 on the WWE Network at 4am GST, watch.wwe.com