On Apr. 2, after losing to Roman Reigns at Wrestlemania 33, Mark Calaway left the stage and presumably ended his legendary career as The Undertaker, leaving his iconic trenchcoat and hat in the center of the ring of Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
In 1990, Calaway made his professional wrestling debut in the then-World Wrestling Federation as The Undertaker, a mysterious undead gravedigger that buried his opponents alive. He would go on to have a 27-year-long career, obtaining multiple championships and gathering a loyal fan following among World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) viewers around the world. Over the years, The Undertaker competed against the likes of other wrestling legends, such as The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena, and Shawn Michaels. His character, a frightening behemoth, and iconic “Graveyard Symphony” entrance music are well-known around the world even to non-wrestling fans.
Although there are many noteworthy aspects of his wrestling career, including multiple championship reigns and intense rivalries, The Undertaker’s Wrestlemania presence and former undefeated streak were what made him so influential. Wrestlemania, WWE’s flagship show, always had the anticipated question of who The Undertaker’s next opponent was going to be. Before his shocking loss to Brock Lesnar in 2015, The Undertaker had a 21-0 undefeated streak at Wrestlemania, having beaten legends like Triple H, Randy Orton, and Shawn Michaels in matches that are considered the pinnacle of ability, athleticism, and storytelling in professional wrestling.
The Undertaker’s character as an undead gravedigger was conceived in a time when many wrestlers played characters with professions. Some examples are “IRS,” a tax accountant, “Sergeant Slaughter,” a drill sergeant, and “Big Boss Man,” a police officer. The Undertaker distinguished himself from other wrestlers not only with his athletic ability, but also with his commitment to the role, by sounding as creepy as possible on the mic. In this era of professional wrestling, these “gimmicks” aren’t as present. Instead, a wrestler is judged and marketed to the audience based on their in-ring ability, and sometimes given special characteristics that relate to their nationality.
Even during that time, The Undertaker was still a character who defined the atmosphere and landscape of WWE. Many wrestlers would flaunt their athletic ability and in-ring skills, but The Undertaker would “bury them alive” as he triumphed over them in matches. Mark Calaway’s enthusiasm and passion for his character allowed him to play the same role for 27 years, and although that role has gone through questionable experimental phases in the past, the consistency of his performances always boosted his impact inside and outside the ring.
The Undertaker was not only a force of greatness against his opponents, but also one of WWE’s key backstage figures. Stories from former and current wrestlers describe The Undertaker as the backstage veteran, as he would have almost as much authority to create storylines and feuds for television as the WWE’s creative writers. Some say that any idea that a wrestler wanted to pitch would have to go through The Undertaker before reaching higher traction with writers upstairs.
Others describe him as the most loyal employee of WWE, as he never thought of jumping ship to competing wrestling companies like World Championship Wrestling, even if the salary was higher. Even at age 52, The Undertaker loyally appeared on nearly every Wrestlemania season to perform on “the grandest stage of them all,” giving his fans at least one big appearance a year. In his 27-year career, The Undertaker competed in 25 Wrestlemania matches, only missing two in its entire span.
For myself and other wrestling fans, The Undertaker was more than just a character on television. He was a larger-than-life individual whose appearance on the small screen brought chills down my spine. His words on the mic brought his character to life, as he would tell his opponents that they would “rest in peace” as he rolled his eyes back and did his iconic cut-throat. Even during the later years of career, The Undertaker still had the athletic ability to perform most of the signature moves that gave him fame, such as the “Chokeslam,” “Hell’s Gate,” “Last Ride,” “Old School,” and his iconic finisher, the “Tombstone Piledriver,” without much difficulty.
Although chances are The Undertaker is not really undead or capable of occult magic, there was always a cryptic aura that accompanied his eerie entrances that made me believe, for as long as the match lasted, that The Undertaker’s character and presence inside the ring defined power. There is something indescribable about The Undertaker and the sheer dedication of Mark Calaway’s performances that inspired WWE fans to treasure and anticipate Wrestlemania whenever those blue lights would shine and the gong would ring, signaling the arrival of The Undertaker. His retirement will definitely change Wrestlemania, as his matches really were integral in making the annual event special and exciting, even if, theoretically, all the other matches at Wrestlemania were mediocre.
Some will say The Undertaker’s retirement at Wrestlemania 33 was not a great send-off. To be frank, many, including myself, consider the match itself and its buildup really mediocre. Almost every wrestling fan was certain that this year’s Wrestlemania was The Undertaker’s last match, and the dream match everyone wanted was The Undertaker vs. John Cena, a pairing of two legends that was never presented on the Wrestlemania stage. Instead, The Undertaker was booked to face (and eventually lose) to Roman Reigns, a wrestler that many believe the WWE has not properly conceived, due to his lack of ability both on the mic and in the ring.
As for the actual fight, many believe it did not live up to its expectations as a main-event match. The Undertaker had trouble performing all of his signature moves as smoothly as he did when he was younger, and Roman Reigns’ lack of complexity in his own skillset robbed the match of depth in terms of the physical moves that occurred in the ring.
Some even go as far as to say that The Undertaker’s last match was a lost opportunity, as other young or talented wrestlers such as AJ Styles or Finn Balor would have benefited greatly from retiring, or even just wrestling against, a legend like The Undertaker, and that Roman Reigns deserved the privilege less than some of his colleagues whose wrestling experience was superior to his.
Nevertheless, The Undertaker is most likely retired. Looking back on his best WWE moments was special for me; he was a big part of my life and one of my all-time favorite wrestlers. He will always be a legend in my heart, and it’s heartbreaking to see a legend part ways with his craft. Although many who don’t watch WWE probably don’t understand how I feel, the best comparison I am able to give is when Kobe Bryant retired for basketball fans.
Kobe is a legend in the NBA and everyone respected and recognized his expertise on the court. Even when he was not playing well, fans rooted for him and rivals despised his presence. When he was injured, fans would patiently anticipate his return. Everything Kobe did in basketball left an impact on the sport itself, and helped define what basketball is today.
Kobe retired after dropping 60 points in one game, which was an amazing send-off to a legend. When it was all over, fans didn’t focus on Kobe’s last game, but rather on his historic career as a whole as a five-time NBA champion, eighteen-time All-Star, and the third-highest scorer in the history of basketball. Although The Undertaker did not have the best curtain call, fans, including myself, respect him for his legendary career as a seven-time World Champion, phenomenal 23-2 Wrestlemania record, and being one of, if not the greatest, professional wrestlers of all time.
As a personal aside and tribute to The Undertaker and Mark Calaway, thank you. Thanks for your faithful service to WWE and everything that you did to help the company grow and entertain fans, even when you were long-past due for retirement. Thanks for defining my childhood Friday nights, where I stayed up late to watch Smackdown to see you wrestle. And although many think it could have been better, thanks for that last ride at Wrestlemania 33, where you left your heart and soul in the ring and retired. May you Rest, In, Peace.