With all sports (and sports-entertainment) leagues currently hurting for new content to keep audiences engaged, networks are pulling out the big guns: Multi-part documentaries of some of their most iconic athletes. And what The Last Dance is to the NBA, Undertaker: The Last Ride is is to the WWE Universe. This five-part docuseries, whose first episode aired yesterday and will continue to air exclusively on the WWE Network every Sunday for the next four weeks, follows the journey of the Undertaker from the days before his WrestleMania 33 match in 2017 until, presumably, present day.
We at With Spandex will be watching along with the rest of you every Sunday and distilling each episode down in our new recap, Ride Or Die. Here’s what we learned from episode one of The Last Ride.
The Undertaker Is Getting Old
Filming for The Last Ride‘s first episode, The Greatest Fear, started three days before WrestleMania 33, at the personal request of Mark Calaway. The entire undercurrent of this episode is that ostensibly, this is the end for the Undertaker, and that Roman Reigns will be the one to retire him. Calaway is caught on camera joking around with Jim Cornette and Jimmy Hart about being pro wrestling’s version of Santa Claus (because he only comes around once a year), as well as ribbing fellow legends such as Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels at that year’s Hall Of Fame ceremony, before later opening up about the stark reality of his current situation:
“The Streak is what made it okay for me to only work once a year, because I had to defend the Streak. It takes its toll. I had a five-year stretch where my schedule would be, I would prepare for Mania, I would have my Mania match, then I would have some kind of surgery to repair whatever had been bothering me going into that match, then go straight from rehab right into training to be ready to go for Mania again.”
He goes on to admit it’s a huge challenge to only work once a year (a sentiment later reinforced by Triple H) and that he simply can’t work a full schedule anymore.
The Undertaker Is Well-Respected
No big surprise here, right? The Last Ride pulls out the big guns in its first episode with a slew of legendary talking heads, all talking about how important Mark Calaway is to the wrestling business and how much respect they hold for the big man. We hear platitudes from legit WWE Hall Of Famers Mick Foley, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Batista, Edge, Steve Austin, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Mark Henry, Scott Hall, JBL and Jim Ross, plus surefire Hall Of Famers such as Randy Orton, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt and the Big Show (and also three-years-ago Chris Jericho, billed as “former WWE Superstar”). Plus Vince McMahon himself shows up — he doesn’t do that for very many of these WWE Network documentary pieces, so you know this one’s important.
The Undertaker’s Confidence Was Shattered Because Of WrestleMania XXX
Taker says his back-to-back WrestleMania matches with Shawn Michaels were challenging, and his match with Triple H at WrestleMania 27 was “brutal,” resulting in him spending two full days in a hotel room afterward just to recover, before eventually having hip surgery. That surgery rolled back his odometer a bit, though, as he says his next two Mania matches, against Triple H and CM Punk respectively, were “pretty good,” but when it comes to his WrestleMania 30 match against Brock Lesnar, that’s where everything gets tough.
This is without a doubt the most intense part of The Last Ride‘s first episode, as we find out more about Taker’s concussion he suffered mid-match and how it was much more severe than anyone had known until now:
“I’m not sure when I got concussed. I don’t know how that match happened. I have no recollection of any of that. My last memory of that day was at about I’d say 3:30 in the afternoon.”
WWE trainer Larry Heck confirms the story of Vince McMahon following the ambulance to the hospital, adding that Brock Lesnar was also with Vince. And even as Taker tried to tell people he was okay, Michelle McCool reveals otherwise:
“He was trying to cheat in the hospital. Nurses would come and go, ‘What’s your name?’ And he would ask me, ‘What’s my name again?’ He was so severely concussed he didn’t know his name, he didn’t know where we were, he didn’t know why we were in New Orleans. He didn’t know his name until 4 a.m.”
Calaway thinks it was a combination of age and ring rust that caught up with him in that Mania match. “One concussion and one match destroyed my confidence,” he comments, echoing a remark made by Steve Austin earlier in the episode: “Ring rust and timing is real. The nervous system, the nerves play into all that.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and WrestleMania 31. Taker’s opponent, Bray Wyatt, says he had no idea the Dead Man was lacking confidence, but it was apparent to Triple H, who approached him backstage and gave him a quick, profane motivational speech: “Show them who the fuck you are. Fuck last year. Kill this thing.”
After the match, Taker is shown joking with Vince about knowing his name, a big change from the aftermath of WrestleMania XXX. His restored confidence led to a more active schedule in the ensuing year, working an additional six matches in 2015, including two more with Lesnar.
The Undertaker Was Not Ready For WrestleMania 33
The final portion of The Last Ride‘s first episode focuses on the day of WrestleMania 33, which is clearly being framed as his final WWE match. You have some perfunctory remarks from Roman Reigns talking about how honored he is to be his dance partner, but more importantly, you have Taker himself reflecting on his own legacy, and his value to WWE.
“If I’m on the card, there’s some young guy that may not be on that card. It’s my duty to make sure it’s worth putting me on the card. No one would probably say anything to my face if I stunk it up, but i would know. That’s one of my biggest fears, is becoming a parody of myself. It would kill me to know that some dad who watched me when he was young has to turn to his son and go ‘yeah he’s moving kinda slow now but you should’ve seen him 10, 15 years ago.”
Fine speech. But the problem is, everyone else around Taker seemed to know he wasn’t in peak shape for this one. Just moments after calling him “the greatest performer that’s ever been in the history of this business,” JBL shoots from the hip and says, “I’d never seen him in worse physical shape than he was before WrestleMania.”
Edge compares Taker ca. 2016 to Brett Favre playing for the Vikings, noting that there will be always be flashes of greatness, but it doesn’t matter how spotty their performance is or what anyone else says, because due to their pedigree, “they have cart blanche to say when it’s time.”
As Taker approaches Camping World Stadium, he remarks, “They say fighters can grow old in one fight. Hopefully this isn’t that fight.” (Little does he know…)
Some of the most fun stuff happens as the cameras follow Taker around the stadium before the show. You get to see a visibly nervous Kofi Kingston shake Taker’s hand (but not before quickly wiping it on his pants), an embrace between the Dead Man and Lesnar (a beautiful acknowledgement of the war they put each other through) as well as the Dead Man and Goldberg (foreshadowing their disastrous match two years later) and the ever-observant Chris Jericho, who quickly puts two and two together when seeing a camera crew following Calaway around, realizing this is the end of his career.
We later see Calaway limping into a trainer’s room, getting a cortisone injection in his knee to “take the edge off it.” This might be the most human we’ve ever seen the Undertaker, emphasized by his remarks:
“The business comes first, first and foremost. Our job is to go out and be first-class professional entertainers and give our fans what they paid their hard-earned money to see.”
Unfortunately, we all know what happens next: A main event match against Roman Reigns that was passable at best, resulting in the Undertaker “going out on [his] shield” before quickly scrambling to his feet and putting his entrance gear back on, just so he can take it off in a dramatic fashion and leave it in the center of the ring.
— WWE Network (@WWENetwork) May 11, 2020
Afterward, Taker is met by a similarly fatigued Triple H below the entrance ramp, who embraces him and congratulates him on a “hell of a run.” A little bit later, after he gets the excess fluid in his knee drained, Calaway remarks, “I’m pretty content riding off into the sunset. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
This could have been a standalone episode — and maybe had the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia never came calling, it might have been — but instead, we get four more. And given the iffiness of some of Taker’s post-retirement matches, it looks like The Last Ride is about to pick a whole lot of scabs in the coming weeks.