Before Mick Foley had walked through the World Wrestling Federation’s doors, he had already made a “bang” in the wrestling world as “Cactus Jack.” The hardcore, sadistic and masochistic Jack fought some of World Championship Wrestling’s most bloody matches against Vader (one of which famously caused Foley’s right ear to be torn off), later wrestling some hardcore clinics in Extreme Championship Wrestling and brutal deathmatches in Japan. When he made his 1996 roster debut in the WWF however, Foley was no Cactus Jack. He had introduced a darker, more sinister and self destructive character in “Mankind.”
Photo credit: TheSportser
Mankind was batshit insane. And not in a pitiful or comedic way either (at least not initially). Those first few vignettes that saw a masked delinquent crying for his mommy in a boiler room and ripping his hair out genuinely made for uncomfortable viewing. All the credit in the world needs to go to Mick Foley too, as if this character was given to anyone else, it surely wouldn’t have worked as well. Foley’s mic skills, charisma and knack for acting became evident thanks to these vignettes and gave fans a taste of what was to come of one of the most beloved professional wrestlers of all time.
Foley was a method actor, meaning when he was acting as Mankind, he was Mankind. There was no more Mick Foley when he put that brown leather mask on. Supposedly, Foley would spend hours in arena boiling rooms before shooting a vignette or wrestling a match in order to further connect to his disturbed alter ego. Mankind’s preoccupation with boiler rooms, a dark and creepy, yet comfortable habitat for the unstable masked man, subsequently saw him in the first ever “Boiler Room Brawl” against The Undertaker. The match put both men inside the arena’s boiler room, and the first to escape to the wrestling ring and grab The Undertaker’s urn was pronounced the winner. As you could imagine, it was a brawl in every sense of the word. Tables, ladders, concrete, steel, and yet, it was only a mere sample of what is perhaps the most awe-inspiring and violent feuds in the history of the WWE.
The rivalry between Mankind and The Undertaker eventually led to the first-ever Buried Alive match, a match where a winner was only crowned once he threw his opponent into a six-foot grave at the top of the stage, then filled it with dirt. This match, coupled with its ominous implications and violent nature, ushered in three more matches between the two men throughout the winter of 1996 and spring of 1997, before Mick Foley would introduce a new arc to the Mankind gimmick.
In a series of interviews conducted by play-by-play commentator and fan-favourite personality, Jim Ross, Mankind gradually revealed to the world that he had a multitude of split personalities. In these interviews, he alluded to his pre-WWE, hardcore character, Cactus Jack, as well as his teenage, hippie backyard wrestling gimmick, Dude Love. Both of which would go on to wrestle and have their own storylines in the WWF, but for brevity and consistency, I’ll skip a year to the next and most significant stage of Mankind’s character.
By the King of the Ring pay-per-view in 1998, Mick Foley had already fully reverted back to the Mankind character after wrestling as both Cactus Jack and Dude Love, though this time with a few alterations. His brown leather gear was replaced with an oversized white dress shirt and poorly-tied necktie, and his psychotic ramblings were replaced with coherent, human-like and emotional promos.
The show would be host to the third ever Hell in a Cell match in history, a stipulation that already harbored intense violence. This night however, on June 28, would change the world of hardcore wrestling, and in turn, the future of professional wrestling forever. With a tagline like “Off with their heads,” viewers should have expected brutality, but perhaps even those who did were in for a surprise. The match started at the top of the cell, as both men rushed to the roof before the opening bell could even ring.
“Good God almighty, they’ve killed him! As God as my witness, he is broken in half,” Jim Ross screamed as Mankind fell 16-feet from the top of the cage to the concrete floor below, crashing through the Spanish announce table in the process. The visual was stunning. It was like watching a live murder. Seeing a man fall that high to the screams of shocked and horrified fans in attendance was absolutely breathtaking. But it wasn’t over yet.
Not but three minutes after the fall, Mankind, who was being taken out via stretcher with a very obviously separated shoulder, sprung up and ran back towards the cage. With a bloodied smile and determination, Mankind was climbing back up the cell to confront The Deadman. The 17,000 in attendance at the Civic Arena collectively lost their minds as Mankind began fighting back. Then, as The Undertaker went for his signature chokeslam at the centre of the cage’s roof, the panel Foley landed on gave way. The already injured near-300-pound Foley plunged 13-feet to the ring canvas, landing directly on his back, with a steel chair that was previously atop the cage landing directly on his face.
“That’s it, he’s dead,” Jerry Lawler proclaimed. “Good God. Will somebody stop the damn match? Enough’s enough,” JR cried out. The curtain was pulled back. This was no professional wrestling angle. Mankind… Mick Foley, had fallen a total of 30-feet in the span of 10-minutes. His two front teeth had jabbed through his upper lip, lodging themselves in his nose, his jaw had been dislocated as well as his shoulder, he was massively concussed and one of his kidneys was severely bruised. Soon after this match, Mankind was a hero. The sacrifices he had put his body through showed that despite him being clearly unstable, he was as resilient as they come.
After the 1998 King of the Ring, Mankind began incorporating more comedy into his character, as he slowly strayed away from the creepiness he previously demonstrated. He befriended a sweaty sock he named “Mr. Socko” that would assist his dreaded finishing move, the Mandible Claw, and he gave us some of the most hilarious and memorable moments in WWE’s history with his rivalry and tag team with The Rock. On January 4, 1999, Mankind won the WWF championship from The Rock, which precipitated WWF’s first ratings victory over World Championship Wrestling in over a year. The WWF would never lose a ratings war to WCW again. Tony Schiavone, the main WCW commentator spoiled Monday Night Raw’s main event (as it was pretaped) by telling viewers at home that WCW’s former Cactus Jack would be winning the WWF’s world title, infamously sarcastically adding that “that’ll put a lot of butts in seats.” And that it did, as on that night, tens of thousands of viewers switched their TVs from Monday Nitro to Monday Night Raw to see Mankind become the face of the company. Since Foley’s in-ring retirement, I would argue that Mankind is perhaps his greatest legacy. Cactus Jack, Dude Love and the character of Mick Foley are all incredible wrestling personalities in their own respects, but nothing in my opinion, will ever compare to the creepiness, hilarity and brilliance of Mankind.