Before becoming The Undertaker, Mark Calaway was en route to becoming a pro wrestling footnote.
A tall, redheaded basketball player out of Houston had found his calling in the squared circle but not the right character. His early gimmicks were nondescript, and his characters were generic tough guys much like the ones that already populated the wrestling landscape.
The near-7-footer was a promoter's dream: a big man with quick feet.
Bookers saw greatness in him but hadn't found the right vehicle to exploit it. They put a mask on him, slipped him into a vest or gave him a criminal backstory. He was a masked marauder, an ex-con, a predatory giant.
None of it stuck; none of it made Calaway come off as a star.
Still, as an intimidating, large man who could leap off the mat like a much smaller grappler, he had wrestling chiefs in awe. And so they kept booking him against top stars. They kept waiting for one of his gimmicks to catch fire.
He may have just battled Hall of Famers, though, and not become a surefire one himself, had he not finally eventually morphed into The Deadman.
In retrospect, it's clear that Texas Red, Dice Morgan or "Mean" Mark Callous wasn't ever going to bring Calaway the kind of success that the Undertaker gimmick has. Before donning his trademark black hat, he was a midcard wrestler with main event physical gifts.
Texas Red, Master of Pain
At 19 years old, Calaway took his first steps into a wrestling ring, serving as food to hungry predator Bruiser Brody.
Brody's clubbing blows across his opponent's body were so convincing because he held little back. His style was an unforgiving one, leaving foes with no need to sell his moves. He offered Calaway his introduction to the business.
Veteran and rookie met in 1984 for World Class Championship Wrestling at the famed Dallas Sportatorium.
As Texas Red, Calaway wore a mask and red boots. Percy Pringle III (who later became Undertaker's cornerman, Paul Bearer) stood outside the ring to watch his protege go to work.
The gimmick, like this debut match, was nothing special. While Brody and Calaway were close to the same height, the wild man overshadowed the masked man. The chain-swinging, growling beast that was Brody had a clear idea of who he was at this point.
Calaway was just a kid in a mask.
He continued the Texas Red gimmick for a few years as he did sporadic work for WCCW. His peak as this character came from teaming with Ted Arcidi. The two reached the 1987 tag team tournament finals.
The Texas Red shtick never took. He would soon take off his mask and trade it in for a more developed character.
The Continental Wrestling Association welcomed Calaway in 1989 as Master of Pain.
The story was that he had killed two guys in a bar fight. After serving time in an Atlanta prison, he was now free—an angry, hardened man in search of violence.
He found himself again with a skilled manager at his side. Dutch Mantell (known today as Zeb Colter) used the big man as his proxy in a feud with Jerry Lawler.
Calaway's debut was not as memorable as the CWA powers might have hoped. He preceded his match against Rodney Napper with a tirade explaining his background.
It was clear right away as he grabbed the microphone that talking wasn't his strong suit. He was plenty intense but not nearly as skilled verbally as he was physically.
The Undertaker gimmick would later allow him to deliver his messages in short bursts, asking less of him in promos.
Considering how well he moved in the ring and how good he looked playing the Goliath in there, it was no wonder that the CWA offered him a high-profile spot in spite of his limitations on the mic. He took on the extremely popular Lawler early on, eventually beating him for the company's world title.
That reign, and his time as Master of Pain, didn't last long. He teamed with Mantell, making it to the second round of a 1989 tag tournament. He collided with Lord Humongous, a masked character played by Sid Eudy, who went on to become Sycho Sid and Sid Vicious.
It was then time to circle back to his first gimmick: putting a mask back on.
Now sporting a black mask and dressed like a biker, Calaway stayed in Tennessee, wrestling for the United States Wrestling Association (formerly the CWA).
Again, the company thought highly enough of him to give him a top manager. This time around, it was the villainous Skandor Akbar who coached the big man from the sidelines. Akbar led Devastation Inc., a stable of heels that included Abdullah the Butcher and King Kong Bundy.
Calaway was to be the latest monster under Akbar's tutelage: The Punisher.
As one can see in his dominant win in 1989 over Steve Williams (Steve Austin), Calaway displayed much of the talent that would lead him to WWE megastardom. He excelled at pounding on his foe. He showed off great footwork and moved more quickly and smoothly than the vast majority of big men.
Still, his character felt generic.
There was no staying power to it. It was the kind of gimmick one would see in a parody movie about wrestling. It's hard to imagine when watching that match that those two men would eventually headline SummerSlam.
It didn't help that Calaway was unable to use his face to tell a story. As Undertaker, he thrives at showing rage or shock with his expression. The mask muted that skill.
Some success came his way at USWA. He won the Texas Heavyweight Championship in 1989, but for just 15 days. Kerry Von Erich dethroned him, taking down the big, bad man in black.
Months later, he did a bit of gimmick-tweaking and was wrestling in Japan instead. He kept the Punisher name but added Dice Morgan to it. The mask was gone; Calaway toned down his attire.
During his stint at New Japan Pro Wrestling, Punisher was no longer the silent, brooding type but a brasher, louder bruiser in a sleeveless T-shirt. This was the most personality fans had seen of Calaway. He looked more comfortable in this skin than in any other.
Most of his month-long NJPW tenure saw him compete in tag team action. He teamed with and against Bam Bam Bigelow, in addition to partnering with Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit).
The height of this run came on March 19, 1990, when Calaway joined forces with Scott Hall against Masa Saito and Shinya Hashimoto for the IWGP tag team titles in Hiroshima, Japan.
One can see his potential here. He had presence to go along with his in-ring ability. But the gimmick didn't stand out the way that other gaijins (foreigners) who had highly successful careers in Japan did, though. Vader, Brody and Stan Hansen had all found their ideal personae.
Calaway's journey had yet to reach that point.
Before and after Calaway's trip to Japan, he suited up under another persona—"Mean" Mark Callous.
The name sounds like a bit of a joke. When wrestlers were called Crusher, Dr. Death and Killer, being billed as "mean" was a letdown.
Regardless of the name, opportunity came early for Calaway at WCW. A Sid Vicious injury left The Skyscrapers tag team one giant short. In came "Mean" Mark to battle the company's babyface teams alongside "Dangerous" Dan Spivey.
As was the pattern in his career, WCW hooked Calaway up with a manager. This time, it was Teddy Long who served as his mouthpiece. When Calaway did get a chance to talk trash, it was generally underwhelming.
Before a Chicago Street Fight against The Road Warriors at WrestleWar 1990, Long provided 90 percent of the promo, and "Mean" Mark jumped in at the end with a performance that was miles away from what he would later do as Undertaker.
That summer, Calaway ventured into the singles division, leaving Spivey behind. The list of opponents he faced points to WCW officials' foreseeing big things from him. After battling the biggest tag teams in the company earlier that year, he faced Eddie Gilbert, Brian Pillman and eventually Lex Luger.
By the time he took on Pillman at Clash of the Champions XI, a new man stood in his corner: Paul E. Dangerously (known today as Paul Heyman).
The same thing was true that night, as it was during his career to this point: The athletic gifts were there, but something was just missing.
He expertly flew from the ropes with his elbow cocked. He made smashing Pillman with forearms an artful endeavor. But when he celebrated his victory by screaming at the camera, "Take a good look," it didn't connect.
Had he remained "Mean" Mark, who knows what his career arc would have been like.
There was no way, though, that he would become one of the most enduring characters in wrestling history as The Undertaker. He wouldn't have been the ideal contrast to Hulk Hogan's colorful, kid-friendly gimmick. He wouldn't have had the perfect means to show off his strengths while masking his weaknesses.
Transforming into that dark, haunting character catapulted Calaway.
When Calaway put on a pair of black gloves, a coat that hung off his long body and a touch of purple makeup and made his official debut at Survivor Series 1990, greatness was on its way, and a legend had found his path.