Mick Foley, otherwise known as Dude Love, Cactus Jack, Mankind, Santa Claus, and Mick Foley has earned a rightful, deeply significant place in the pantheon of professional wrestling art and popular culture.
He exists as a self-described "supporting cast member", a truly innovative talent whose range and subtlety is deservedly appreciated perhaps now more than ever.
If Foley and his various iterations ever were "supporting characters" then they were supporting characters in the same way Heath Ledger's Joker received second billing in The Dark Knight. Ledger might not be first name on the marquee, and Batman might get all of the cool action sequences, but Ledger's Joker is the reason you lean forward in your chair and pay attention to every gesture and inflection.
Where the leading men of The Attitude Era won you over with their bravado, their scintillating phraseology, and their spectacular finishing maneuvers, Mick Foley got four distinct characters over because he offered an instantly recognizable, deeply tortured, yet wholly benevolent human soul.
While The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Mick Foley each represent a kind of wish-fulfillment for viewers, Foley thrived in creating a kind of wish-fulfillment that seemed genuinely attainable. In his characters exists an openness of feeling that we all secretly wish for, but fear. Instead of telling that story about the childhood bullies, we revert to a closed, defensive stance and crack wise with our buddies. All the while we are uncomfortable in the world, uncertain of those around us and deeply distrusting when, in reality, we want nothing more than to love and be loved. And so we take out this stored-up aggression in ways both destructive and perverse.
Foley's relatability has less to do with his physique and in-ring style and much more to do with the compassion he displays in his performances. There is a selflessness in his demeanor, a confidence blended with a graciousness that is the hallmark of any good performer.
Almost anyone can leap off the top of a cell, light themselves on fire, and collapse into a bed of thumbtacks. Very few can inspire genuine empathy, and make you believe in the story behind such suffering.
One of my earliest, most vivid memories of professional wrestling was the Monday Night Raw where Linda McMahon announced that Mick Foley would be entered into the main event of WrestleMania 2000.
In fact, even though I grew up with a vague admiration for Hulk Hogan and The Macho Man Randy Savage, this moment is when my pro-wrestling consciousness came online. I don't remember watching episodes of RAW during The Attitude Era before this moment. So Mick occupies not just a significant space in professional wrestling, but also in my actual mind as it relates to the medium. He could be considered the spark that ignited my larger fandom, even resulting in this very blog.
I was finally old enough to retain the visual and thematic information, but young enough to get swept up in the theatrics. To this day, when wrestling is at its best, I inevitably believe in the fiction as easily as I believe in the motions of any great work of art or entertainment.
I had no idea who Mick Foley actually was, and yet, for some strange reason, I knew exactly who he was. I was thrilled to see him come down the ramp. And even though I only had a vague appreciation for the significance of WrestleMania, and even though I didn't quite know who Triple H, The Big Show, The Rock, or Stephanie or Linda McMahon were, I became enraptured with the scene and I wanted Mick to succeed.
Mick's relentlessness, his punches, and his unbridled enthusiasm coupled with the explosive crowd left an impression that has never left my consciousness.
And from that moment on, Mick carved out a specific, entirely positive place in my pro-wrestling viewing in the early aughts. His run as commissioner existed as a respite for my teenaged self. So often discouraged by watching heels like Triple H dominate The Rock, or seeing Stone Cold turn into a truly vicious character following WrestleMania X-7, Commissioner Foley was a much-needed break from all the pain and the suffering (wonderfully ironic considering his past).
Thanks to the WWE Network I've been able to go back and explore, and comprehend Mick Foley's work in a deeper fashion. I'm able to view his history in a more complete way, not merely as a teenager who giggled every time he worked a cheap pop.
There are two promos in particular that I've only recently discovered, and in them exists two characters unlike any I've ever seen in wrestling.
Where Cactus Jack and Mankind have seemingly been most-remembered for the bumps they took, the spectacle of the violent visuals, the characters continue to live on because they exist as, quite possibly, the most relatable, human pro-wrestling characters in WWE history.
We might want to give our dictatorial bosses a Stone Cold Stunner, and we might want to have the expensive sunglasses and the quick-wit of The Rock, but each of us, in that dark, private, incredibly human place, is Mankind (hence the brilliance of the moniker).
Cactus and Mankind, in these two promos, shatter the typical forth-wall of professional wrestling, offering worked shoots of sorts. These promos are powerful not just because of the consistency and torment in Foley's performance, but because their quality subtly makes an argument for and against professional wrestling.
Cactus and Mankind are forthright in their self-awareness, understanding that they are tangled in the vicious web of an indifferent world as well as the self-destructiveness of human psychology. In this way the characters critique the professional wrestling business, and the world itself, for not only permitting destructive behavior, but encouraging it.
Cactus is essentially arguing that professional wrestling has devolved into a freak-show, expressing his deep dissatisfaction with how the medium is not treated as a respected form of performance.
He points out a problem within professional wrestling fans that persists even to this day, effecting the way people criticize, talk about, and even cover the medium. That problem is the needy, bloodthirsty audience that exists in a perpetual state of hypocrisy - defending their beloved pro-wrestling against detractors while simultaneously cheering on everything about the business that prevents it from ascending to a more respectable station in the public consciousness.
In delivering this critique so fluidly, passionately, and powerfully, Foley accomplishes exactly what he's arguing for - he proves the point of his argument. The art of his speech demonstrates that pro-wrestling can be a respectable form of performance art.
Just as anyone can crack their skull on concrete, anyone can shout from the top of their lungs, "Respect wrestling!" Only those performers who are the best at what they do are able to stand as a testament to their argument; that if you want wrestling to be respected, you yourself have to treat it with respect and offer up excellence as a way of supporting your argument.
Mankind is an echo of that argument, but his odd gentleness, his sadness is in stark contrast to the unbridled rage of the Cactus promo.
Unlike other beloved everyman wrestlers, Mankind is more specific, representing not just the determination and the perseverance of the underdog, but the pain and the dormant insanity of the everyman.
In this way he is even more accessible (for me) than the stellar Daniel Bryan. The character exaggerates the trauma inherent in being human, and in so doing he sheds light on aspects of human psychology that more upbeat, or straightforward underdogs can't.
"Have a nice day!" is a deceptively simple, direct catchphrase seemingly on par with "Yes!" But when "Have a nice day!" comes from the lips of Mankind after he's just ripped out a piece of his hair, the expression becomes tinged with irony and depth. The tortured soul keeps saying, "Have a nice day!" over and over and over, seemingly in the hopes that such a fleeting dream will come true.
This is the kind of character-work that shall inspire future generations. In his depth and sincerity Foley has graciously offered up a variety of characters that age like fine wine.
Just as I have rediscovered Mick, so to shall others watch his best promos and his best matches, and experience one of the great examples of an in-ring artist.
A relentless creator, he now shares his stories on his Hardcore Legend Tour, and embarks upon adding yet another character to his ever-expanding list in the upcoming I Am Santa Claus documentary.
In suffering for his art, Foley provided a respite from our own pain, an excursion from the grind of our daily lives into a fantastical, dreary, yet simultaneously hopeful landscape.
One can't offer anything greater to mankind.
Thank you for reading.
And have a nice day!
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