WWE’s the Undertaker: ‘The human body isn’t made to take what we do to it’

There’s not a day I wake up something doesn’t hurt,” says a matter-of-fact Mark Calaway. “I’ve already got metal in my hips; I’ll walk with a limp for ever; the range of motion of my head is not what it was.” It doesn’t take a doctor to diagnose why. Since first stepping into the wrestling ring 34 years ago, this 55-year-old’s body has taken a staggering amount of abuse. Donning his trademark Stetson, leather coat and perfectly applied black eyeliner, Calaway – known by all as the Undertaker – has spent a career expertly clotheslining and chokeslamming his way to glory. Since his debut WWE (then WWF) appearance back in November 1990, he has become its longest-serving performer; a literal and figurative giant of the wrestling world.

Throughout his various onstage incarnations, the Undertaker’s dedication to his sinister character and high-camp horror theatrics have made him a true fan favourite: from the fresh-faced feuding heel (villain) during his early days to his “Deadman” era and streak of 21 straight wins at the annual WrestleMania event. Fans even stuck by him through the American Badass era, a strange time when the Lord of Darkness rode a chopper and patriotically waved a US flag. Those who have crossed him have found themselves thrown from steel cages, hung from nooses and shoved into bodybags; he has been buried alive before emerging from his coffin resolutely resurrected, and set on fire – accidentally and on purpose – at least three times. He had a complicated relationship with his onstage manager, the terrifically named Paul Bearer: not being much of a talker, Undertaker opted to suffocate him in a cement-filled crypt.

Big Evil (another nickname) might be the ultimate bad guy, but ask who fans or colleagues think has worked hardest to support their industry, and all foam fingers lovingly point Calaway’s way. In 2017, with retirement looming, he started filming an official six-part documentary, Undertaker: The Last Ride. For Calaway, sharing intimate moments from his professional and personal life was uncharted territory.

“There was always the little guy on my shoulder,” he says from his home in Texas, “telling me I shouldn’t be talking. It’s strange, even to this day I’ll catch myself pausing, feeling guarded, questioning whether I should stay quiet.” Opening up is an adjustment: through his career, Calaway was determined to keep himself hidden, to protect the sanctity of his persona at all costs.

Professional wrestling was a very different place when Calaway cut his teeth in the late 80s. Back then, its greatest stars abided by the code of “kayfabe”: the unspoken rule that saw wrestlers keep up the pretence that their vocation wasn’t scripted entertainment but pure competitive sport. A combination of salacious scandals, cynicism and the advent of social media might have blown away that smokescreen, but for decades Calaway continued to – at times single-handedly – keep up the fourth wall.

Today, though, he has traded his iconic outfit for a less threatening sleeveless green hoodie and camouflage beanie, more sweet Texan uncle than deranged demon, as he talks us through the realities of life inside and out of the ring. “People who aren’t fans have a lot of preconceived ideas about wrestling,” says Calaway. “Back in the old days, if someone said it was fake you’d get mad and upset.”

Take the time in 1997 when a Kuwaiti television host asked Undertaker and another wrestler, Vader, for the truth behind wrestling: furniture went flying; the poor bloke found himself held by the scruff of the neck by Vader. “As I’ve matured, I’ve learned I don’t need to [get upset]. Today, everyone knows what wrestling is. You get a bit of every genre of entertainment: drama, comedy, incredible athleticism. We’ve come out: we’re sports entertainment. The product has evolved into a global juggernaut,” – WWE airs in more than 800m households across 180 countries – “and not by chance.”

Calaway grew up not far from where he lives today in Houston. He watched wrestling on TV as a kid, but his interest waned in his teens. A staggering 2.08 metres (6ft 10in) tall, he played basketball at college and considered offers from European teams. While training at a gym to bulk up for tryouts, someone mentioned wrestling camp. Calaway was reluctant at first, “but I realised even if I was lucky enough to make a [basketball] team somewhere … how long would I have?”

He turned back to wrestling, and saw a space for an athletically agile behemoth. “Most of the big guys were plodders,” he says, “they’d walk around and knock the crap out of you; pick you up and throw you. I could do that while moving around nimbly, too. Once I started training I was like: ‘God, this is what I want to do.’ It was in my blood.”

Most of Calaway’s early contemporaries left the business years ago; the few who could match Calaway’s celebrity stature traded in the tight briefs and tag-teams for more lucrative, less physically demanding lives. Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, a former sparring partner, is one of the world’s highest-earning movie stars; Hulk Hogan clocked up an impressive collection of film credits and reality TV shows before allegations of racism led to his uncharacteristically unchoreographed demise. Others were even less fortunate: a tragic number of WWE’s finest talents died far too young.

Calaway steered well clear of the steroid and sex scandals that at times tainted the profession, instead remaining devoted to his craft. “The way I looked at it,” he says, “I was living my dream. I didn’t have aspirations to take it to a level then go to Hollywood. I loved every aspect of the industry, and wanted to continue to help it grow.”

The price he paid to remain in the ring for so long, however, extends beyond missing out on potential paychecks. “It’s really physical work,” he says. “The human body isn’t made to take what we do on a nightly basis.” His trademark finishing move has long been the “tombstone piledriver”: “I pick someone up, and with all their weight and mine jump down straight on to my knees.” Scripted storylines, he assures me, don’t deplete the level of physical work. At the last count, he’d undergone 17 surgeries for injuries: a few the result of specific matches, the rest wear and tear. One day, both his knees will need replacing. “I don’t say this for sympathy,” he adds. “I chose my path and wouldn’t change it, even with all the metal I have in my body today.”

The Last Ride is revealing, if at times indulgent: theatrical action sequences and training montages; big names showering Calaway with praise. Beneath it, though, lies a portrait of a man addicted to adrenaline and grappling with the spectre of retirement, struggling to say goodbye to his alter ego of 30 years. On more than one occasion, he touts a match as his swansong. Despite finding it increasingly hard to get wrestle-ready, time after time he goes back for more. “It’s difficult at times,” he says. “There’s a void. But it gets filled up because I get to spend more time with my wife and young daughter: I get to go to her tennis match, horseback riding, to be at birthdays and anniversaries. You sacrifice it all to have that life, and now I don’t.”

Calaway is determined, too, to avoid cashing in as a gimmick, wheeled out as a past-his-prime spectacle for the titillation of crowds. “That’s where me and the corporate side kind of bump heads, because they think there’s so much life left in that character,” he says. “There is, but I can’t hold up my end of the bargain and perform at the level people expect.

And so, a few weeks after our interview, at WWE’s long-running Survivor Series show, the Undertaker once again stepped into the spotlight. This time, however, would be his last: a formal retirement announced. Some of WWE’s most celebrated sons showed up to pay tribute, including Ric Flair, the Godfather and Shawn Michaels. Dwayne Johnson, meanwhile, tweeted: “Honored to share the ring with you, my brother.”

For Calaway, it was evidently emotional. “My time has come to let the Undertaker rest in peace,” he said slowly and solemnly. Then he just stood, head bowed in silence, as pre-recorded crowd noises were pumped up to the max. After a final exit from the ring, he held his fist in the air triumphantly, and disappeared.

“I think what I’ll miss most is the feeling I get when I walk out,” Calaway had told me. “Regardless of how I felt physically, when the lights went out and the music came on and I started my entrance, just for a couple of moments, my fans made all the pain go away. You feel their appreciation, it gives you that little bit …” Wrestling’s tough guy takes a deep breath. “It’s like a drug, really, in the sense it’s fooling you. The injuries are still there. I just can’t tell you how many times on my walk to the ring, I’ve thought I could do this for ever.”

There’s no doubt that last night’s farewell had all the hallmarks of a definitive departure: messages from megastars, best bits reels and a heartfelt goodbye. But it’s still unclear whether anyone, himself included, is convinced that we’ve really seen the last of this Undertaker: he has a history of coming back from the dead.

Undertaker: The Last Ride is out on DVD from Monday