As far back as I can remember, I have been a pro-wrestling fan. My mom still tells stories about how I would sit in front of the TV screen as a two-year-old watching WWF with my eyes wide open. My older brothers and I would have PPV matches in our bedroom, and we would pretend to hit each other with wrestling moves. We even had a paper cut out belt and pretended to be our favorite wrestlers. In the 1990s, I would pretend to be the Undertaker, and my cousin would play the role of Shawn Michaels. I loved (and still love) wrestling, and the Undertaker was vital to fostering my passion for the industry.
I first saw ‘Taker in 1992, and he instantly became my favorite wrestler. He was a larger than life character in every way. His walk to the ring, his costume, and his devastating Tombstone piledriver finishing move made him unique. He perfectly encapsulated the power of pro-wrestling, which is one part sport and one part soap opera. In this article, I want to discuss Mark Calaway’s story of becoming the Undertaker and its effect on my life.
Mark Calaway was born in Houston, Texas, in the year of 1965. Pro-wrestling has a deep-rooted history in Texas, so he fell in love with the profession at a very young age. Calaway became enamored when he was 8-years-old after he met Andre the Giant. As a young man, Mark played various sports, but his love for wrestling grew as he got older. In 1986 he began training in the ring with Texas legend Buzz Saucer. The wrestling school costs him around $2500. Early on in his career, the future Hall of Famer worked in the Memphis, Tennessee territory. Mark’s character at this time was “The Punisher.”
However, he did not gain his fame until the 1980s. In the late ‘80s, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) approached Calaway. In this promotion, he formed a tag team called “The Skyscrapers.”After his tag team run, Mark began his singles career, but executives quickly informed him that he was not main event material. The company believed people would not pay to see him perform.
Yet, his manager, Paul Heyman, saw something in the raw potential of the star. Heyman is a legendary promoter within the wrestling business, and his eye for talent is unparalleled. Heyman started shopping Calaway around other promotions, especially to the WWE (previously WWF). Within a few months, Heyman arranged a meeting with Calaway and the legendary WWE owner, Vince McMahon. McMahon was a notoriously cutthroat businessman and the innovator of modern wrestling. The meeting did not go to plan because Vince did not have an active role in the company for Calaway.
A few months later, Calaway was sitting at home when he received a phone call. As he answered the phone, he heard the voice of Vince McMahon say, “Hello, is this the Undertaker?” Calaway immediately agreed to be the character, and he said, “yes, this is the Undertaker.” By his admission, he had no idea what The Undertaker character was, but he wanted to get a foot in the door.
On November 19, 1990, the Undertaker made his debut at the Survivor Series PPV. He was the perfect blend of WWE’s pro-wrestling style because he had the “gimmick” of being a deadman with tremendous athletic ability. The wrestling world had never seen anything like the Undertaker. He played up his “supernatural” powers and walked to the ring in a long black overcoat in a slow-motion style. He could roll his eyes back to look like a demon, and he was billed as living in Death Valley. The crowd was legitimately scared of the mysterious giant standing in front of them. I was four years old during Undertaker’s debut match, and I remember being mesmerized by his presence. He had an aura that made him seem unbeatable, and he was undeniably captivating.
The Undertaker had an old school mentality that took wrestling back to its roots. He did not break “kayfabe,” which is the convention of presenting staged performances as authentic characters. Unlike other wrestlers, the Undertaker did not sign autographs at independent conventions, appear in interviews out of character, and he was never caught walking around as Mark Calaway. He was the “Deadman” in front of the public for thirty years, and his devotion to the character earned him respect from other performers. Today, many wrestlers post about their real life on social media regardless of whether they were a “heel” (villain) or “face” (hero), but Calaway avoided this trend. For years, Mark Calaway almost did not exist outside of the Undertaker.
As the years went on, Calaway made the Undertaker into the most legendary figure in WWE history. He was the most respected name in the company, and he was involved in some of the most famous moments in wrestling history. Undertaker fought in the first Hell in a Cell match and the first Casket match. His epic toss of Mankind from the top of the 20ft cage was brutal, but it cemented his legacy as the scariest wrestler on the planet. Most importantly, he became the defining feature of Wrestlemania by going on a twenty-one match winning streak. Wrestlemania was WWE’s Superbowl, and Undertaker was its MVP.
In his thirty-year run in professional wrestling, Undertaker held a version of the world title seven times, and he was the tag team champion on six occasions. He engaged in feuds with The Rock, Stone Cold, Kane, Brock Lesnar, and Roman Reigns. Undertaker has been the greatest character in wrestling history, and he defined three decades of television for young people across the globe. Ultimately, Mark Calaway inspired me as a child to become a wrestling fan, and his retirement marks a significant change in the wrestling industry. I want to salute the Undertaker one last time. Calaway, your legend will live forever because in the words of the Undertaker, “you cannot kill that which is already dead.” Thank you for the years of entertainment. We Salute you!
Dawaun Davis is an activist and political writer from Baltimore, MD. Davis is a proud Foundational Black American, and he hopes to use his growing platform to help young Black people with their struggles.