A Giant Leap For Mankind: Mick Foley's path to superstardom
In light of the excellent Foley episode of A&E's 'Biography' premiering this past Sunday, here's my FSM feature on the man from 5 years ago.
Enjoy? Want to support this work and get exclusive content, like source materials and notes from the Babyface v. Heel podcast that’s finally debuting in the coming weeks? Then please subscribe for just $5/month or $50/year. Even if you’re not able to pay right now, please at least consider signing up for the free version, which will deliver all of the free posts directly to your email inbox, as well free preview excerpts of the paid subscriber-exclusive articles.
It’s time to go back to the archives once again. This time, we go back five years to June 2016, when Fighting Spirit Magazine published a profile of Mick Foley—focusing on how much going to the WWF changed his life—that I wrote to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his life-changing win over The Undertaker at WWF King of the Ring 1996. This has always been one of my favorite interviews that I’ve ever done, with Mick being exceedingly honest about his state of mind about his career in the mid-’90s. That includes what might be Mick’s only public comments—I’ve never seen him discuss this elsewhere—about the full extent to which he was baring his soul in his promos during his famous heel run in ECW.
When the interview was over, if memory serves me right, Mick admitted that when we first reached out, he was a little confused as to why we’d peg an article about him to the anniversary of King of the Ring ‘96. As we got going, he realized that it really was a pivotal moment in his career that allowed us to cover a lot of interesting ground. I hope you all enjoy reading this one as much as I enjoyed writing it.
When Mankind debuted in the WWF in April 1996, he made a much bigger impact than could have been imagined. Two decades after his first match with The Undertaker, Mick Foley tells David Bixenspan about this pivotal moment in his career.
Twenty years ago this month, the World Wrestling Federation’s fourth annual King Of The Ring pay-per-view was held at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A well-received show at the time, marked by good to great matches, strong booking, and a surprise star turn from Owen Hart as colour commentator, its place in history is usually marked as the night that Steve Austin broke out with the “Austin 3:16” promo.
However, it was also a major moment for one of his contemporaries. On this show Mick Foley, as Mankind, shocked the world by beating The Undertaker in the first televised match of their lengthy rivalry, handing “The Deadman” his most decisive TV loss since his November 1990 debut. It announced that Foley was a major player in the WWF, kicking off a run that saw him headline back-to-back pay-per-view events a few months later. In the next few years, as the Attitude Era took shape, he became a bona fide superstar.
Yet unlike his infamous Hell in a Cell match at King Of The Ring 1998, this is not a bout nor a period about which Foley often talks.
The Mick Foley we all think of now is a happy- go-lucky, lovable, cuddly, and hugely optimistic character, but during the period leading up to him signing with the WWF, the persona he portrayed was completely the opposite. In ECW, he had taken on one of the most cynical gimmicks in wrestling history, as during quite possibly the best work of his career, in interviews he lashed out at the ECW fans who he felt were too demanding, while also acting as if he was kowtowing to WCW to take him back after a somewhat acrimonious departure.
“I think a lot of the passion for the promos came from a place, a very real place, where I thought that I had burned my bridge in WCW and that I would never be welcome in WWE,” Foley told FSM. “[I thought] I was kind of doomed to this existence (pauses to laugh) where I performed for people who didn’t fully appreciate the sacrifices that guys made for their entertainment. I loved performing in front of the ECW audience, but I needed a reason to turn, so that was the part of my mind that I went to.
“I did have some problems with all that was expected from us, and in the long run, how underappreciated it would be, so Paul Heyman had to talk me out of trying to get back into WCW just as a glorified Monday night enhancement talent. I really thought that with my run in ECW combined with the job I had in Japan, combined with a couple of nights a month on Nitro, I could make a pretty good living for my family. I didn’t expect anything beyond that.
“I had just been offered a small raise in IWA Japan. I know they thought of me as their number one American [wrestler], and really, that was my future: a guy who could go for, say, 10 to 12 weeks a year for IWA Japan.”
By the time the WWF came calling, Foley could very well have been honour bound to staying in the IWA. As fate would have it, something of a break from Japanese tradition kept that from happening.
“I asked [IWA promoter] Mr Asano, when he offered me a raise, if he wanted to shake hands on it or if he wanted me to sign a contract. Japanese tradition states a handshake is as good as a contract. He said he would draw up a contract, so I honestly believe that had he said ‘handshake’, and we had shaken hands, that I would not have accepted the WWE opportunity. Then the phone call came within a couple of weeks from that moment. I would have been ‘the guy’, their top American, and I would have continued to wrestle for IWA for however long my body would have allowed.”
Having known him from two stints in WCW, Jim Ross had been pushing heavily for Foley to come in as The Undertaker’s next opponent, but the idea that Vince McMahon was recreating Mick Foley in his own vision, instead of bringing in Cactus Jack, led to Foley having some serious misgivings.
“I had some really deep concerns about changing characters, about making this leap to what, at the time, was supposed to be ‘Mason the Mutilator’. And I joke around about it; I mentioned it during a special I did for WWE, that had I known that the mask was really just (laughs) Mr. McMahon’s concession to Jim Ross – that he would in fact bring me in, but he would cover up my face – I would not have taken the offer. We wouldn’t be talking about this anniversary, because there would be no anniversary to celebrate.
“So I did have some deep concerns, and I spoke to Jim Ross for a couple of hours about it. I talked with my wife, and we decided, if we commit, that I was gonna do it wholeheartedly and put everything I possibly could into this new character, and turn it into something special.”
That dedication included sitting still for hours with breathing straws sticking out of his face, as a plaster cast was made of his head so that the Mankind mask could be moulded to fit perfectly, Still, he had trouble letting go of Cactus Jack, even for this kind of opportunity.
“I felt like Cactus Jack was a seed that would grow anywhere it was given proper nutrients. I didn’t see the need to change that concept at all.”
While Mick wasn’t crazy about having to take on a new persona, he did have the benefit of being able to adjust with a quick trip to the USWA, which was unofficially the WWF developmental group at the time. Coming in for a week of TV and house shows as “Mankind the Mutilator” (the name was shortened before his WWF debut on Raw night after WrestleMania), he proved to be very effective in the role. In the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter, Pat Wade noted that during the Mankind versus Jerry Lawler match at the Mid-South Coliseum, the crowd reacted differently from the norm. Usually, when Lawler was wrestling a national star of some kind, said national star got cheered, even if he was a heel. Mankind, however, “startled the fans with his screeches” and came off as a genuinely scary heel.
“It was helpful,” Foley explained of the Memphis experience. “I did get kind of a sense for playing this different character. I certainly didn’t have it down, but I put a lot of thought into it. I was always thinking in terms of character when I was Cactus Jack, and I had been putting a lot of thought into what turned out to be Mankind, this ‘mutilator’ character, while I was finishing up my tours of Japan.”
INSIDE VINCE’S MIND
Foley tried to read into the treatment he was receiving as he was being signed, but couldn’t necessarily draw a positive or negative inference. For example, there was his initial meeting being with Vince McMahon in his office at Titan Towers.
“I knew back then that if he really wanted you, he would invite you to his house (laughs). And I knew that [if] you were not considered a major player at all, you would meet with an associate. So I knew I fell somewhere in between.”
As for feuding with The Undertaker, that part of the equation was explained pretty early on in Foley’s talks with the company.
“[I was told] as early as the long phone call with Jim Ross, where I had second, third, and fourth thoughts about making this type of change. I was definitely coming in and starting hot right off the bat with, what even then, six years into his run, was a pretty iconic figure. I knew that The Undertaker had been kind of mired down in feuds with some guys who were just... (pauses to carefully choose words) bigger than him in some way, and I knew he wanted to have better matches on a more regular basis. He certainly had some great matches over the years, but some of his rivalries tended not to lend themselves to classic in-ring match-ups. So even though Mr McMahon was not personally a fan, I had The Undertaker on my side. I know Mr McMahon would ask the opinion of people he trusted, and he got very positive feedback.”
While Foley and Mark Calaway, the man who would become The Undertaker, had become friends in WCW in 1990, the spectre of working with The Undertaker was still an imposing prospect.
“It seems odd to say that even six years into that character, he had that type of aura in the dressing room, but he did. He had the utmost respect from everybody from the moment I got there, and I understood that it had been that way for a very long time. Since then, it’s only grown, but it was pretty impressive even in ’96.”
At the same time, The Undertaker became slightly less imposing on TV. The long Mankind versus Undertaker programme also included the beginning of The Undertaker’s makeover into a less cartoonish, mystical character, with a costume change and fewer “zombie” trappings around his in-ring work. As a result, he was less handcuffed, and able to add more to his matches with Foley.
“I think he really welcomed that opportunity. From the start, he made it really clear that he wanted to have very good, very believable, very authentic matches. And he didn’t want things to look rehearsed or choreographed, so we created a lot of stuff. Every night was a special experience.”
In The Undertaker’s past feuds, while he might get laid out, or have his urn stolen, it was exceptionally rare that he lost on TV or pay-per-view to really kick things off, but that’s exactly what happened at King Of The Ring ’96 against Mankind. In the moment, it took some time for Foley to really understand the significance of how he was being booked, as he was still losing at house shows most nights.
“I saw a statistic that said that I was 0-14 [against The Undertaker] before the King Of The Ring match in 1996, and following [that match] I lost 15 more matches [against him]. So I was 1-29, but I won the one that counted. But at 0-14 the night I walked into that building in Milwaukee, I had no idea that my streak was going to end (laughs); it came as a big surprise to me and the fans. I was just feeling pretty fortunate that I was getting to enjoy these semi-main events, and that we were having good matches, and getting good reactions.
“I was finally getting comfortable with the character and the mask. I remember doing the initial run-in [the night after WrestleMania] and going backstage, just throwing the mask off, because it inhibited my breathing so much. I remember telling my wife that maybe I get a six-to-eight week run and go back to being Cactus Jack. But by the time King Of The Ring rolled around, I was getting more comfortable with the character, and I couldn’t tell you how, or why, but I had my hand raised. And looking back, although we had bigger matches, and more memorable matches, no doubt this was the most important match I’d ever had, and clearly the most important victory I’d ever attained.”
GO BACK TO WHAT YOU KNOW
Foley had come a long way in the last 9 months or so, when his internal crisis about the future of his career was being projected onto ECW shows via things like the Eric Bischoff-targeted “Forgive me, Uncle Eric” shirt he wore at November To Remember ’95.
“I had received a lot of advice from people I respected, ranging from ‘suggesting’ that I not go to WWE, to ‘urging’ me not to go, because they thought it would be the end of my career, that I would look at it like it was the biggest mistake I ever made. I gave that a lot of thought, because I wasn’t going in as the character I was comfortable with. I didn’t think my prospects of winning a programme with a top guy were good, and I absolutely never saw myself as being WWE World title material.
“But I had to know, and that’s something I had been told, that you have to do it; you don’t want to be sitting around at the end of a career wondering, ‘What if?’ That applies to life as well. I did take a huge chance, a huge leap of faith, and in Milwaukee, on that night, my faith got rewarded.”
It was two years later that, after their feud was dormant for 14 months, Mankind and The Undertaker had the ultimate blow-off to their feud: the legendary Hell in a Cell match with Foley getting thrown off the top of the (older, shorter, but still really tall)
cage through the Spanish commentary team’s desk. It became easily the most famous moment of Foley’s career, and he’s glad that it was in the context of a big feud-ender against his greatest rival, two years after their first televised bout.
“If my name is going to be synonymous with one other person, you have no idea how proud I am that it’s The Undertaker. I talk about the fact that we may not exchange Christmas cards, and that I personally don’t have his contact information – (laughs) I really don’t! – but we have a bond that match gives us that will outlast us both. It’s kind of, in a way, bigger than both of us.”
However, he does think that history boiling it down to the oft-repeated clips of the big moments has taken away too much of the context.
“Hell in a Cell is a real emotional rollercoaster. It’s a heavy ride. I watched it in its entirety with my younger kids when my wife said they’d been asking about it and wanted to see it, and I didn’t realise the punch it packed until I watched it in its entirety. In some ways, I think just the clips don’t do it justice.
It really has to be seen as a whole to be appreciated.
“I’ll never feel like it was a great ‘wrestling match’, but as a moment in wrestling history? It’s tough to match. It’s a time and place that people will never forget. So much of it was accidental and so much of the emotion came from trying to pick up the pieces from things that had not gone well, but it’s really powerful to watch.”
So what does he think was their best match together?
“We really had a nice run of matches at house shows. I’m proud of everything we did on pay-per- view and TV, even the much-maligned Boiler Room match, which is like my unloved stepchild of pay-per- view matches. But I think our house shows were right up there in terms of quality; we put a lot into them, and got a lot out of them. It gave my career a new life, and was a nice boost to The Undertaker as well.”
A SPOT FOR LIFE
So with all of this going on – a feud with The Undertaker where he got multiple high-profile wins, three pay-per-view main events in his first 13 months in the WWF, and so on - when exactly did it click with Foley that he had a pretty good spot?
“It would be the spring of ’97 before Mr McMahon became completely sold on me as an asset to the company. So I think, in some ways, I was still looking for acceptance from the father figure that Mr McMahon is to so many of us in the business. But we were driven by the fact that there were a couple of guaranteed contracts out there, and none of them had my name on it (laughs), so every night was a chance to prove myself. I was very happy, but yet I wasn’t content. It’s a difficult balance; it’s difficult to grab for that ‘brass ring’ when you’re stopping to smell the roses. I tried to appreciate it as much as I could while it was going on, but there was never the feeling of being truly content.
“I mean, I was very satisfied after matches, there were times I was absolutely thrilled with how things had gone on pay-per-view, but I always felt like I had so much left to prove.”
Enjoy? Want to support this work and get exclusive content, like source materials and notes from the Babyface v. Heel podcast that’s hopefully finally debuting in the coming weeks? Then please subscribe for just $5/month or $50/year. Even if you’re not able to pay right now, please at least consider signing up for the free version, which will deliver all of the free posts directly to your email inbox, as well free preview excerpts of the paid subscriber-exclusive articles.