THE Undertaker is never the type who takes the microphone and enthralls the fans with his eloquence. He speaks through his actions, sending chills with his macabre ring entrance and menacing stare.
It thus did not come as a surprise that when the Undertaker broke character at Wrestlemania 33, fans interpreted it as his way his way of saying goodbye to the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) where he debuted some 27 years ago.
After bowing to WWE superstar Roman Reigns, the Undertaker took off his hat, coat and gloves and placed them in the middle of the ring. He then made his way up the long ramp, raised his arm in the air and disappeared slowly. The Undertaker also took the time to embrace Michelle Leigh Calaway, his wife of seven years.
Shortly after the match, Reigns paid tribute to the Undertaker. The rest of the wrestling world followed, with major stars offering nothing but words of praises for the Undertaker. “He is one of the guys in the locker room that I respect more than anybody,” said Paul Levesque, who is better known in the WWE as Triple H.
The Undertaker was born Mark William Calaway in Houston, Texas, in 1965. In his early years, he played football and basketball. He earned a basketball scholarship at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth where he played center in 1985.
Wrestling did not cross Calaway’s mind until he met Texas wrestling promoter Fitz Von Erich in 1984. Von Erich was impressed by Calaway’s huge size figure (6-10, 310 pounds) and convinced the latter to enroll in a wrestling introductory class. Don Jardine, an instructor in Von Erich’s World Class Promotions, was the one who taught Callaway the rudiments of wrestling.
After graduating from college with a degree in sports management, Calaway began wrestling for pay in March 1989, initially in the Memphis-based United States Wrestling Association (USWA). Calaway was managed by Skandar Akbar and competed under the moniker ‘Master of Pain.’ In October 1989, wrestling under the nickname ‘Punisher,’ Calaway won the USWA heavyweight title by forfeiture; his foe was apparently too scared to show up in the ring.
After leaving the USWA, Calaway joined the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) where he was known as ‘Mean Mark’ Callous. Calaway formed the tag team the ‘Skyscrapers’ with 6-8 behemoth ‘Dangerous’ Dan Spivey. When the partnership with Spivey fell apart, Calaway packed his bags and headed to the WWE, which was then was known as the WWF (World Wrestling Federation).
In the WWE, Calaway was given a total makeover. As the ‘Undertaker,’ he was dressed in a wide-brimmed bowler hat, pulled down low over his eyes. A black shirt, wide cravat, mortician’s gloves and full-length black trench coat completed the image - dire, creepy and demonic. As a final macabre touch, Calaway was taught to roll his eyes back to show only the whites, a freaky trick that made him look more menacing. The overall effect was eerie and very unique.
Calaway debuted as the Undertaker in the WWE’s Survivor Series in November 1990. The Undertaker’s popularity instantly hit the roof when the WWE tapped the services of wrestling manager Paul Bearer (William Moody in real life), a guy who actually owned a degree in mortuary science. The rubber-faced Bearer, who carried an urn that was supposedly the source of the Undertaker’s powers, made for the perfect manager for Calaway’s character.
Armed with the most devastating finishing maneuver in pro wrestling – the tombstone piledriver – Calaway bamboozled one opponent after another. On November 27, 1991, a year after debuting in the WWE, Calaway captured the organization’s world heavyweight title by defeating Hulk Hogan. For the next 25 years, Calaway would be a fixture in the WWE’s main stage. At one point in his career, the Undertaker became so popular the WWE created a fake Undertaker (the ‘evil’ Undertaker, who was actually played by Brian Lee, a cousin of Calaway) during the time Calaway was in hibernation.
The WWE also created a storyline where it was made to appear that the Undertaker had died. At the 1994 Royal Rumble, ‘Taker was defeated by Yokozuna in a casket match after Bearer lost possession of the urn. The casket supposedly containing Calaway’s body exploded and the Undertaker was gone.
In real life, Calaway needed some time off to battle his personal demons. Drugs and booze had made Calaway prone to injuries and the WWE didn’t like the idea of him showing up in poor condition. Things got so bad that Calaway’s first wife, Jody Lynn, filed for divorce. Calaway was saved from digging his own grave by a girl he met in an autograph session. By the time he tied the knot with Sara, his second wife, the Undertaker had kicked the habit and rededicated himself to wrestling.
Over time, the Undertaker’s wrestling persona had undergone several changes. In 2000, he dumped the bat-like leather costume and darker eye makeup and replaced it with a character seemingly taken from a Harley Davidson biker. In real life, Callaway is a fan of big bikes.
As he ends his career in the big stage, Calaway is leaving with nothing but respect from both fans and wrestlers. Calaway is well-loved by his peers and one incident in 1997 provides protruding evidence. After Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart was screwed by McMahon (the WWE owner altered the choreographed ending where Hart was supposed to win and awarded the match instead to Shawn Michaels), Calaway was the first to rush to the aid of Hart. Reports had it that Calaway followed McMahon to his makeshift office and pounced on the door, threatening to break it down, until McMahon opened it. Calaway promptly told the WWE head honcho to go to Hart and explain himself.
Nagging knee injuries have slowed down Calaway in recent years and at age 52, he is retiring with really nothing more to accomplish. He entered the business as a feared messenger from hell but is now leaving as pro wrestling’s certified cool ghoul.