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Mick Foley’s Redemption

My first glimpse of one of the many faces of Foley

If anyone were to ever ask me, once the subject of wrestling had been brought up, who my favourite wrestler was, I wouldn’t need to think twice. The answer will always be: Shawn Michaels. Not only is he my all time favourite, in my opinion he is the greatest sports entertainer of all time. The epitome of an all rounder, and a true legend of the game. However, he wasn’t my first favourite wrestler. No, that spot was held for many years by a man who first filled me with that sense of wonder that would eventually instill a love of wrestling in me unrivalled by hardly anything. That man would scare me, in that curious way that you secretly love, as I first caught a glimpse of him rolling around in a darkened boiler room, a creepy leather mask affixed to his face, a wild mane of brown hair sticking out of the gaps. That man would make me laugh, with his hokey jokes and ridiculous cotton made sidekick, and eventually that man would make me stare wide eyed at a Street Fight for thirty minutes, in a moment that confirmed this crazy business was something I wanted to be a fan of forever.

Mick Foley had a great career all over the world as a professional wrestler. You name a continent, he’s bled on it. His greatest days would come when he joined the WWF in 1996, and elbow dropped his way right onto the screens of wrestling fans all across the world, as the deranged, masked madman: Mankind. It was that first moment in which I saw Mankind that captivated me as a child, wondering who the hell this crazy guy was. I would later track down the infamous Boiler Room Brawl from Summerslam 1996, and all those feelings came flooding back. I had only seen it in passing in my early years, it wasn’t untill the era of Stone Cold Steve Austin that I began to watch the WWF, and exchange tapes with my school friends. I loved Austin, and so did everyone else, but I never divulged the information that I was secretly in love with Mankind. Not in a gay way. I mean, even if I was gay I wouldn’t…nevermind. The point is his matches were wild and so much more interesting than the majority of the shows, and his talking was even more standout.

I never had the advantage of having Sky at my home so I never kept up with the WWF every single week, and all but missed the swansong of Foley’s career: his Street Fight with Triple H at the Royal Rumble in 2000. The day after the pay per view I remember very clearly. All the kids in school were whispering in hushed but exciting voices about a New York Street Fight which saw Triple H “bleeding out of his head!” The mental image filled me with wonder and a desperate yearning to see the match. A friend had the tape but his mother had found it and recorded over it, deeming it unsuitable for her 12 year old son’s innocent eyes. Using the money I had gotten for my birthday some 6 months later, I finally purchased Royal Rumble 2000, and could hardly contain my excitement as I slotted the tape into the VCR player in my living room. After 20 minutes my Mum made me move my viewing into my bedroom because it was “too graphic” for her, even if she was  a little more liberal than my friend’s parents. I finished the match upstairs and immediately watched it again, devouring every little detail. To this day I remember almost every little moment, down to the dorky middle aged man standing behind the announcer’s table screaming “Bang Bang! Bang Bang! Bang Bang!”, cementing his hilarious “embarassing Dad” behaviour onto home video for eternity. I could go on about this match, and it remains my favourite of all time, but this is all leading to Backlash 2004, and any self respecting fan will know where I’m going with this.

This VHS cover sums up a large part of my youth and genesis of my love of wrestling

Mick retired in April 2000 and much to my dismay, especially considering I didn’t realise untill a few months after the fact when I began to religiously watch WWF programming every week thanks to the advent of Sky One, and occasionally Sky Sports when visiting my Dad. He made sporadic appearances and year after year it became more obvious that he would never wrestle again. I got over it, but always hoped there might be some gas left in the tank for one more Foley classic. In 2003, a young wrestler by the name of Randy Orton, kicked Mick down a set of stairs in Madison Square Garden, the same night he was given a Hardcore tribute on RAW. It was a one shot deal to help Orton’s “Legend Killer” gimmick, but as the year came to a close, the decision was made to engage the two in a feud.

It was on one particular RAW show in December of ’03 that excited, and frustrated me. After agreeing to wrestle Orton, Foley came out the ring, ready to fight in his classic flannel shirt. I can’t explain how excited I was, even though my wrestling instincts told me something fishy was going to happen. Mick retreated to the back, and walked away, before Orton followed him to the back and spat in his face. I was devestated. Was that it? As much as I was pumped to see my favourite wrestler mix it up one more time, I always had my doubts in a “it’s too good to be true” kind of pessimism. In hindsight, knowing how it all panned out, it was not only a key point in their feud, but a captivating, raw, and ballsy piece of TV. Orton ran him down over the next few weeks, leading to a Foley appearance in the Royal Rumble. He took Orton out, and looked more fired up than he had in years. In the weeks leading to Wrestlemania XX, the feud was hot and they created some compelling moments.

“How would I feel about The Rock being part of the Wrestlemania match? About making it a tag match?

To tell the truth, I was a little confused.

‘I’m fine with it,’ I told Brian Gerwirtz, the placer of the phone call. ‘But I read that Rock only wanted to come back if it was a really big deal.’

‘He thinks this is a really big deal,’ Gerwirtz said.

‘Really?’ I honestly wouldn’t have guessed that The Rock considered anything involving me to be a big deal. I was flattered.”

So the Wrestlemania grudge match was changed to the Rock N’ Sock Connection Vs. Evolution(Orton, Ric Flair and Batista). It was a good match, but the highlight was the interaction between two of the most charismatic wrestlers of all time, Flair and Rock. The Foley/Orton feud didn’t take a backseat as such, but when Randy pinned Mick after an RKO “out of nowhere!” it felt like the whole story behind the match had fallen flat. In a sense, life worked well to be imitating art, as Foley was disappointed on screen that he’d failed to live up to vengeance he should’ve unleashed on Orton, and off screen the situation was exactly the same. It actually ended up working for the whole arc of the Foley/Orton saga, with the retrospective knowledge we have now, that their one on one match would be a classic.

“At Wrestlemania(XX), Austin came up to me after the match and he said ‘you consider me to be straight shooter, right?’

I said ‘sure.’

‘You dropped the ball tonight,’ he told me, and he was right.

The match held so much promise, promise that unfortunately didn’t materialise. We didn’t exactly stink out the place, but we didn’t tear it down, either. We had a good match. But a good match was not what I was hoping for. Not after four years away. Not after so much buildup, so much thought, so many hours spent visualising the great things to come.”

So the stage was set for the true payoff to the feud, with a No Holds Barred match being set for Backlash the following month. I was pysched, but after the okay Wrestlemania peformance, I was trying not to keep my hopes up for a truly classic hardcore story match that I knew Mick excelled at. The buildup after ‘Mania seemed renewed and Mick cut an incredible promo on RAW in Hershey, getting in Orton’s face and punching himself just above his eye, busting himself open hardway. The buildup video featured the best of his go home promo the week before Backlash, where he sat in a rocking chair, talking about what hardcore really meant. That it wasn’t about the chairs, the tables, the thumbtacks, the barbed wire, it was about loving the fans enough to put his body through unimaginable pain. He felt secure in the fact that he was doing it all for love, and in questioning the lack of passion he had at Wrestlemania, he went back and watched all the tapes, all the pain, the screaming, the suffering, and by the look in his eyes, maybe he even loved it, for all its pure brutality. He would teach Orton what it means to be hardcore. Written word can’t do the promo justice, Mick Foley has such a way with words, and can cut in my opinion the best promo of all time. The passion, the believability, the colourful and visually inspiring verbiage all make up one great interview.

He lost a lot of weight for the match, getting down to 282 pounds, just 2 shy of how much he weighed in 1996 when he faced Shawn Michaels at Mindgames. It really showed and really helped the match, because from the moment Mick(dressed in his classic Cactus Jack attire) stepped into that ring at Backlash, “business” well and truly picked up. It was a perfect hardcore story match, with well thought out spots that maximised every single moment. Orton had yet to have a truly great match that would stand the test of time, and this was his first big shot to shine with a guy who was renowned for making people look good. The price that Orton had to pay to make this match so memorable wasn’t an easy path. The key moment in the match came when an already bloody Orton tried to down Mick with an RKO into a sea of thumbtacks laid out by the Hardcore Legend as an extreme offering to this brutal fight. As he hooked Mick’s head and jumped forward to execute the move, he was pushed off and landed back first in the tacks.

In that moment, Orton was made. His toughness was approved, his passion for the business was solidified, in much the same way Triple H’s was when he went through the hell of the Street Fight in 2000. I don’t think it would be over hyping it to say this match put Orton on a more prominent place on the map than his allegiance with Evolution and even his father Bob Orton ever did. It was Foley and Orton alone, putting on a classic, brutal match. Orton’s reaction to landing on the thumbtacks was amazing, and you’ve got to believe a large part of it was real, his body visibly going into shock and shaking all over. Barbed wire boards were introduced, Foley was torn up and busted wide open, even dropping an elbow off the stage onto a prone Orton some six feet below. The nearfall following the elbow drop was one of the biggest I’d ever heard and I had goosebumps then, as much as I do now.

Without a doubt one of the most brutal matches in WWE history

Ultimately Orton would overcome Foley with an RKO but the outcome didn’t affect the flipside of the match. Sure, Orton was made that night, but Foley was redeemed. Wrestlemania wasn’t worth coming back for, but Backlash sure as hell was. It remains one of his best matches and a true testament to the magic he can create in(and outside of) a ring. Regardless of what he went on to do after Backlash, the match with Randy Orton will forever stand the test of time and hold a special place in my heart, as I remember the night I felt such a surge of appreciation for my favourite performer. It was a true honour and surreal experience to shake his hand 6 years later.

“I really did care about the match. And I think it showed. For Randy Orton and I had a classic hardcore battle that night. Wild, intense, bloody, and very well interpreted by both parties. Randy still claims it was the best match of his career, which is a tremendous compliment, it may have been my best match aswell.”

After all that though, beyond Mick’s incredible talent as a performer, what I admire about him the most is for being the man he is. In these last few years, after writing this article initially, I met Mick again at his brilliant live stand up show in Cardiff, Wales. I gave him a letter and he took the time to read it and direct messaged me on Twitter afterwards. He’s very fan friendly and I appreciate that so much. Being able to vaguely interact with the man that I grew up idiolising, even if limited to 140 characters, is pretty, pretty…pretty awesome.

I also purchased a German edition of his first novel Tietam Brown(one of my favourite books of all time) in an online auction he ran on eBay for charitable causes. I asked if he’d dedicate it like Rocky was asked to sign an autograph in Rocky II, and a few weeks later, it arrived:

270496_10150241797942383_5868496_n

“To my good friend Luke, who I don’t even know, Mick Foley – June 14, 2011

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