The first full trailer for WWE Network’s Undertaker: The Last Ride mini-series put me in the mind of ESPN’s ongoing Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance.
WWE gave me a chance to see the first episode of The Last Ride ahead of its premiere on the streaming service this Sunday (May 10) after Money in the Bank. And I’m here to tell you, it’s got enough in common with the Jordan doc to appeal to someone who hasn’t kept up with wrestling but is hungry for a sports story. For folks who love all things WWE, well, I guess it goes without saying - you’re gonna eat this up.
If you’re like me and keep up with “the business” by some combination of watching or reading about as many shows as time allows, and staying current with dirt sheets, podcasts, news sites & blogs? It’s a fantastically well put together, fascinating piece of business. It’s capable of making you cheer, gasp, shout, and tear up. You’ll have moments where you think Vince McMahon is every bit the wise, benevolent guiding hand The Last Ride presents him as. Those will be followed by ones where you ask if they really expect you to believe this, or why they screwed something up, or how they managed to pull that off.
That’s a long way of saying… it’s like a lot of WWE programming.
Clocking in at 55 minutes, the first episode of The Last Ride introduces us to Mark Calaway. He tells us a little about the story of his career, and his approach to being a wrestler. Colleagues who clearly respect and love him explain why he’s a legend and a leader. His wife Michelle McCool reinforces all that while also being a touchstone for how much he sacrifices to keep being The Undertaker. It builds to Taker’s match with Roman Reigns at 2017’s WrestleMania 33 - something that all involved seem to believe was his last. Including Calaway. Until he didn’t any more.
Along the way, there’s a lot of stuff you’ve probably heard in the past. Most of the trailer and sneak preview footage comes from this episode, so you may have actually seen about 15 minutes of Sunday’s part one if you’ve been anticipating this series as much as we have here at Cageside.
There is plenty of new material and information, though. In addition to never-before-seen footage and unprecedented backstage access, stories we’ve been hearing about for years are confirmed. The chronicle of collapses and injuries after WrestleMania matches play out about as they were documented by the Meltzers, Kellers, and Johnsons of the world. A shocking amount of time goes to covering just how bad Calaway’s concussion at WrestleMania 30 was. And it was bad. He says he doesn’t remember anything after 3:30 p.m. that day. McCool says he couldn’t remember his name until 4:00 a.m. the next morning.
A moment like that stands out, because so much of The Last Ride and all WWE productions* are dedicated to myth-making. It’s a different kind of myth-making than what we get on Raw and SmackDown, but not entirely. The shift is from watching a G rated Rocky (or PG Porkys) to a PG-13 version of The Wrestler. Like the one from Undertaker to Mark Calaway. The WrestleMania streak built the legend of The Dead Man. The Last Ride aims to cement the legend of Calaway.
Which works, because a big part of me wants to mark out for the 55 year old Texan just like I’ve marked out for the eternal badass from Death Valley! The Last Ride invites us to cheer on the performer more than the roles he’s played. The first hour shows us all the ways the loss to Reigns In Orlando was the perfect end for the character. The scenes from the next episode (which drops on May 17) tease a deeper examination of the ways that it wasn’t acceptable for the man, such as when Taker couldn’t help Roman get him up for a tombstone as they headed into their finishing stretch.
In the first hour of The Last Ride, the reveals come from showing us more of Calaway’s physical humanity. It’s another way it’s different from something like The Last Dance. The Jordon doc is allowed to show multiple facets of the key players’ personalities, and invite the audience to draw some of our own conclusions about the person behind the presentation. Like all WWE productions*, this is so focused on presenting their version of these people, that you sometimes question how much of certain elements are kayfabed.
For the most part, I love that. Sure, I would like to see some conflicting viewpoints, or hear two sides of a story like we get from series like 30 For 30 or Dark Side Of The Ring. And maybe the remaining four hours of WWE Network’s Undertaker event will, too. But if the rest of The Last Ride is more of what we get from part one, it’s still a great way for more people to stay engaged with pro wrestling.
And that’s because, while it’s dressed up like “real” sports, it’s still totally pro wrestling. Cheering characters and the people behind them, being wowed by their charisma and their creativity and their athleticism and their dedication and their stubbornness, playing a little work or shoot, doing some fantasy booking, and getting frustrated with WWE. Those are the things that keep fans like me engaged with this wacky business/artform.
The Last Ride is in a slick Hollywood package, AND it still does all those things. WWE productions* like these docs are the closest Vince & company have come to their promise of “making movies”**. This five-parter on one of the best to ever do it looks like it will fittingly be their best blockbuster yet. The prevailing circumstances would seem to give this a chance to catch on as a wider pop culture phenomenon. If it does, it won’t strictly be because it’s like The Last Dance. It’ll be because it’s a top notch example of so many of the things that make us wrestling fans.
Working against it? It doesn’t look to have a Dennis Rodman-type. Fingers crossed one of the next four episodes gives us an Attitude Era flashback to Taker pulling HBK out of a Vegas hotel after a three day bender with a model.
If that doesn’t work, they can lean into Calaway’s Tiger King connections. Talk about a zeitgeisty documentary mini-series that was totally pro wrestling!
* Having recently found myself with more times to obsess over things like how great the best WWE Network specials - such as this one, and the recent Edge: The Second Mountain - are, I noticed that we don’t get anything resembling credits on them. The opening tells us Undertaker: The Last Ride is from “WWE Network Documentaries”, but we’re not told who’s in that department. I also noticed it because I’ve read interviews with Last Dance director Jason Hehir, who also directed HBO’s Andre The Giant doc and thought, “I’d like to read an interview with the director of The Last Ride” and realized that I will probably never will, because a corporation made this and regardless of what the Supreme Court tells us - they’re not people.
** Well, except for maybe recent innovations like The Boneyard Match. And watching Taker quest for the perfect end to his career really makes me hope he lets WrestleMania 36 be it, because that’s gonna be hard to top.