Well….that’s it…and what an ending! After working my usual long Sunday shift having the last episode of WWE Network’s Last Ride series waiting on my PVR turned out to be a tremendous Father’s Day gift….with an ending I certainly was not expecting (more on that later) as I had known for a couple of weeks that I was going to write this piece the following week of the finale.
In the middle of April while North America and most of the world were under COVID lockdowns ESPN and Netflix dropped a ten part documentary entitled The Last Dance that focused on the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and the end of their championship dynasty. Given the social climate this documentary became a phenom of sorts, especially since next to no live sports were taking place. This year’s Bulls and teams of the past were profiled but the entire story was anchored by the pro-basketball GOAT Michael Jordan. This film gave unprecedented access to a man who had so carefully crafted a public persona that few outside his inner circle knew the real man (sound familiar wrestling fans?) and this film would show the driven, complex and even maniacal competitor that Jordan really was. Fast forward to May 10th of this year and WWE Network shows the first of a five part series on their network known as The Last Ride. This was also a documentary that explored the ending of an era. That ‘era’ was the remarkable career of Mark Callaway aka…The Undertaker. WWE cameras followed him around going into WM33 in 2017 as what was supposed to be his ‘last dance’ against Roman Reigns. For those in the know things did not quite go to plan and this project took on a life of its own checking in with the Dead Man off and on for three years. While this extended project showed parts of the legendary in-ring career of The Undertaker it also gave unprecedented access to a man who had so carefully crafted a public persona that few outside his inner circle ever saw (see the similarities here?).
While these two series seemed to be going neck-in-neck with their respective audiences I came across an article (don’t remember the source…sorry) that praised The Last Ride but said it wasn’t on the level of the emotionally charged Last Dance. I had to digest this comparison for a moment. At the time I hadn’t seen any of The Last Dance but had heard some of the more colourful sound bites from it and had some of my co-workers raving about it. While the series on Taker took a break near the end of May I decided to watch the Jordan doc to see how they compared. Not only did I find them equal for what they were trying to accomplish I also found some similarities in the career arcs of both men. Both were Gods Among Men in their respective sports however the mainstream media will always try to claim that Jordan is a bigger star and superior athlete. As respected as The Undertaker was in their eyes he was just after all ‘a wrestler’ at the end of the day.
Although I am not a die-hard basketball fan I have all the respect in the world for Jordan’s accomplishments and his impact that would lead to him transcending his sport to become a fabric of popular culture. With that being said I believe The Undertaker deserves that same level of respect. I am not talking from the wrestling world, that isn’t the issue. I am talking about from the masses and the mainstream sports media. Sure, Jordan made way more money, arguably had higher celebrity status, changed endorsement deals forever with the original Air Jordan shoes, put basketball on the map globally when he competed in the Olympics and is currently one of the only black majority owners in all of professional sports. In my eyes Mark Callaway’s accomplishments are vastly different but are on some of the same level of grandeur. Before I break down the Last Ride’s ending and it’s potential aftermath and challenge WWE’s production team I want to show where I feel Taker outshines the great Michael Jordan. I will not do a full fledged analysis of both documentaries as I recommend you view both and jump to your own conclusions if you have the time. I trumpeted Jordan’s legacy and gave credit where it is due but moving forward I will make and back up some bold statements where I feel Mark Callaway equals and exceeds the GOAT.
The Undertaker is tougher than Michael Jordan
Talk about being shot out of a cannon with this one eh? Watching The Last Dance I learned that basketball players have a lot to deal with in terms of lower body injuries, especially with their knees and feet. These body parts take a much bigger pounding than I ever thought. However for people who think wrestling is ‘phony’ and such need to watch Last Ride and hear about some of his past injuries. With that and the number of surgeries it is amazing Undertaker was able to wrestle as much as he did at a high level. I could go on and on about comparing injuries but here is one example I want to focus on.
In the 1998 NBA Finals Jordan became immortalized in what was known as The Flu Game. Legend has it Jordan and his entourage ordered pizza late at night while in Salt Lake City, Utah (they were playing the Utah Jazz on the road) and allegedly Michael got food poisoning and was ‘throwing up’ during the game and delivered a performance that defied belief. Problem with this game is that it is after all legend and nobody could ever really decide if Jordan had food poisoning, the flu or was just enjoying himself too much the night before game time. It makes a great story but at the end of the day is an urban legend shrouded in speculation.
In February 2010 Undertaker was in the Elimination Chamber. During his entrance a mis-timed pyro nearly cost the Dead Man his life. Somehow he made it to the ring and suffered horrible burns. In the chamber pod he kept having to have water handed to him to douse himself off. Later in the match he took moves (ie: Walls Of Jericho) where his burns were constantly scraping the ring canvas. While Jordan’s toughest moment was based on speculation this one was painfully in plain sight for everyone to see. It was a miracle he survived let alone wrestled in a main event PPV match.
The Undertaker is a better teammate than Michael Jordan
Although it may not seem that way wrestling is the ultimate team sport. Everyone from crew, officials, production, creative to the wrestlers working a match this business does not succeed without a team like co-operation. Now to be fair Taker has let his ego run wild and cause some friction as exlempified by WhatCulture Wrestilng in this clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3d3jUVXpsk). But with that being said I believe the good outweighs the bad. He would elevate the careers of Mick Foley, Steve Austin, Randy Orton, Kurt Angle, Dave Batista and many others over the years. He stated recently that someone like Roman Reigns would have benighted from ending The Streak more than Lesnar did. While he didn’t always come out on the losing end he made sure to make the ones who needed to look good, look good. I must also mention that he was known to be relentless on certain guys when they weren’t getting it. The Big Show has talked about his at length during his early struggles in WWE but has said that Taker’s tough love is the best thing that could have happened to him. But throughout the documentary you get the impression that Taker is likely more helpful and approachable than a lot of other top talent in the business.
Which leads me to MJ. One of the most controversial and hotly debated topics of The Last Dance was the brutally candid feedback from some of his own teammates. Let’s just say that MCW and its affiliates are family-friendly and some of their adjectives to describe Jordan are not appropriate here. I can understand from his arch rival opponents but his own team? Jordan was constantly at odds with players, coaches and even upper management if the table was not set exactly to his liking. Now, I understand that his massive ego was almost always backed up by one astounding performance after another. Jordan ruthlessly asking for the ball and having coaches defer entire game plans to cater to his needs can be hard to digest but with the results he achieved also showed that maybe it was necessary. While I understand his maniacal will to win there is footage in this doc that most will agree that he took these matters too far (check out his treatment of backup player Scott Burrell….wow!). While both Jordan and Taker had massive egos and political stroke I still think when you watch both docs that the Dead Man comes off as the more likeable one.
The Undertaker is more selfless than Michael Jordan
This ties into the previous entry. One of the coolest clips of The Last Ride is seeing Taker on some time off going to the Performance Centre and critiquing and working closely with NXT talent. This isn’t something he has to do with his time but chooses to because he wants to help the future of the business. I believe this ties into Ole Anderson and co. telling him that nobody would ever pay money to see him wrestle when he was trying to negotiate a new WCW contract. He would rather give wisdom to the next generation of talent instead of bitterly crush their spirits.
Which brings me to my next point another staggering comment on Corey Graves’ podcast was Taker saying in the mid 90’s that he was unhappy with WWE business being down and his own creative direction. A phone call from Kevin Nash put a thought into his head about leaving the company after Big Sexy gave a pitch on the incentives and benefits of working for Turner, financial or otherwise. Taker would decline and decided if the ship of WWE goes down he is going to be one of the rats to sink with it. One of the biggest pillars of his legacy was his undying loyalty to Vince McMahon and the company that made him a star and how he was going to remain in the trenches no matter what the outer circumstances are. That mentality certainly paid off for him. Taker also felt he dropped the ball at WM33 and apologized to Roman Reigns for not giving him a better match. The ultimate act in humility.
Speaking of the 90’s the example of Jordan not being not so ‘selfless’ is one of the most bizarre and shocking turn of events in the history of modern pro sports. After the Bulls won their third straight Championship in 1993 Jordan would retire from basketball and chase his other ‘childhood’ dream of becoming a professional baseball player. Michael’s father was horrifically murdered earlier that year and the grind of being an uber star and international celebrity seemed to burn him out. That is fair because Jordan was dealing with adversity and public pressure most of us will never ever know. However quitting the league to go play minor league baseball in Alabama was a weird way of dealing with it. I’ll argue that Jordan needed to take a leave of absence to clear his head and recharge, it happens to the best of us. But this move to me is the equivalent of The Undertaker quitting WWE at the hight of the Attitude Era to chase a ‘dream’ of playing in the NBA because he used to play college basketball. Only thing I will add to this is that Jordan just happened to play in the system of the Chicago White Sox who was also owned by Jerry Reinsdorf the owner of his beloved Chicago Bulls. Also numerous conspiracy theories circle about Jordan’s excessive gambling habits (which are fact) got him in too deep and had to disappear for a while.
Either way Mark Callaway states in The Last Ride that he has experienced a heavy amount of personal tragedy and adversity (remember his ‘Sarah’ throat tattoo….it’s covered up now…I’m sure that ‘s some of what he was alluding to) but he never quit on what made him who he is. Another major revelation from the doc to back this up is that on his way to filming the Boneyard match with AJ he received terrible news that his one brother suddenly died of a heart attack. No chance to say goodbye, just dropped dead and unable to see him. Even though he was crushed he didn’t flinch and delivered an epic performance against The Phenomenal One. I’m sure this tragedy added extra intensity to this match. In the face of adversity it is proven time and time again that nobody can publicly handle that level of it better than Mark Callaway.
The Undertaker is more disciplined than Michael Jordan
Both men have their vices. Taker likes to drink and like most on the road has likely gotten into other things. I don’t think it ever affected his performance in the ring. If it did, he really put in a strong effort to hide it. Outside of some failed relationships and such I have never heard anything remotely scandalous about Mark Callaway. Just seems like the kind of guy to take care of business and have a little fun once in a while. When not in character he would dress in biker gear or jeans and a t-shirt and seemed like a laid back guy you would want to just have a drink with.
From what I know I can’t quite say the same about Jordan. His competitiveness and preparation has been stated as borderline psychotic in terms of focus and execution. However Jordan loved to gamble. Whether it was over a round of golf, a game of cards or late nights in the casino. Urban legend has it he was literally wagering thousands of dollars on certain plays in the NBA Finals against compulsive-gambler extraordinaire Charles Barkley. Like any other pro athlete Jordan did enjoy some of the night life. Not nearly as much as teammate Dennis Rodman (who could arguably put Caligula to bed) Jordan did once notably get burned by this. It conveniently gets left out of The Last Dance but in their record breaking win championship season of 1996 the Bulls lost to the expansion Toronto Raptors and it came out later that Jordan and the team took them ‘lightly’ after indulging in the Toronto night life the evening before.
While Mark wears street clothes that give you a real blue-collar ‘what you see is what you get’ Jordan was always in the finest suits, smoking cigars and just trying to look the part of a high-roller instead of the average man. It just seems to me one man was acting as an extension of himself while one was trying to portray a double life.
I am done with the comparisons but again to be fair Undertaker’s 2018 matches are similar to Michael Jordan’s ill fated comeback with the Washington Wizards. Neither produced championships and are documented with video evidence but best to be passed over. So while both of these legends exposed their warts in their respective documentaries both of their accomplishments cannot be undermined despite the differing attitudes and approaches of both men. So before I get to the shocking climax of The Last Ride I am issuing a challenge to the WWE.
I would like the WWE to do an in depth Last Dance style documentary for The Undertaker. The Last Ride was wonderful for what it was but has left me as a fan wanting more. Especially since Taker is doing all kinds of podcasts now dishing out more and more amazing stories. WWE needs to step up and make the definitive Undertaker story that can be broken down into eras like The Last Dance. I loved how the narrative of that jumped from the ’98 season and went back in time creating an arc that ended at the last championship. The same format can be done with Taker’s career. Get all the major players and rivals to help him tell his story and break it down into these eras:
The Original Dead Man: 1990-1997
The Lord Of Darkness: 1997-2000
American Badass: 2000-2004
Deadman Resurrected: 2004-2010
The End Of An Era: 2011-2020
I know somebody reading this is connected to WWE via the six degrees of separation. Make it happen. In terms of Mark announcing his retirement in the finale of The Last Ride I have two schools of thought on this:
1) Mark Callaway will be the next Stone Cold Steve Austin by announcing his retirement in a low-key fashion and sticking to it. Austin has done an abundance of appearances but has not wrestled since 2003. Taker being a full-blooded Texan like Austin, may be a man of his word and stick to his guns.
2) Like all other wrestlers who have been in this predicament they are in fact officially done until the drug that no performer is immune to kicks in….that drug being….the roar of the crowd. I can potentially see Taker going backstage (like he was at WM35) and getting sucked into wanting to chase that ‘dragon’ again. When Mania returns to a fully packed stadium the crowds are going to be more electric than ever before. It may be very hard for Mark or any other seasoned performer on the fence about coming back to resist. From a selfish standpoint I still think he can have one more great match….most likely with AJ Styles…in a ring this time. If it is to happen….that is who I feel it can happen with….after all this is wrestling and you can truly never say never! In fact I originally thought the doc was going to end with Taker saying his next match would be his last whenever that may be…..I seem to have been stood corrected!
Irregardless of what happens I have Taker’s back as a fan. The last couple of years have been a roller-coaster ride watching him and if this is officially it I won’t complain one bit. The Boneyard Match was one hell of a way to exit. Thank you Mark Callaway, most importantly for being you, you are to wrestling what Michael Jordan was to basketball. Just not as vilified by your peers.