The first time I saw Mick Foley's comedic genius was just over four years ago. It had nothing to do with a sock, nothing to do with his guest appearance on 30 Rock or his supporting appearance on Saturday Night Live. It was just Foley, a microphone, an arena full of wrestling fans and the soul of 1980s glam rock.
There are no scripts in wrestling. Sometimes you have to get from one point to another, but there aren't cue cards or teleprompters. And when there's no TV at all, such as that night, most wrestlers enjoy a mix of liberties and laziness they'd never display to an audience of millions. On that night, Foley was cutting a promo meant to inspire and thank the attending fans for years of support. No matter the damage he'd done to his body for decades, the struggle was worth it. It was heartfelt. It was genuine. Even though it wasn't the first or even fifth time I had seen him speak on the subject, it was inspiring. And yet he managed to work in the lyrics to Ratt's 1984 hit single "Round and Round."
Seriously, almost the entire song made it in:
Out on the streets, that's where we'll meet!
You make the night, I always cross the line!
When his music hit, he took the ring to the largest pop of the night, reinforcing the promoter's logic. At the time I worked for the promotion and traveled to the international shows to coordinate local publicity and marketing. Every night I watched roughly the same show, anchored by interchanging main events, but always highlighted by Foley's in-ring promo in the middle of the card.
Tightened our belts, abuse ourselves!
Get in our way, we'll put you on your shelf!
He was booked as a headlining talent on a string of shows in Europe, even though throughout the tour's run he would barely bump in the ring. In 2009, Foley was as he is today — a pro wrestling legend and one of the industry's most charismatic personalities. By sheer virtue of the fact that he hadn't been seen by European wrestling fans in several years since leaving WWE, the idea was that he'd draw solely on the basis of an appearance, not a match. It's the rarest of air for anyone in the industry to breathe, the concept that hard-to-please wrestling fans will pay their money simply to lay eyes on a talent.
Round and round!
With love we'll find a way, just give it time!
I knew we were in England because when pro wrestlers cut promos in foreign countries, they'll either employ the local foreign language ring announcer for comedic effect or just trim their mic time to a quick revue of universally understood catch phrases and gestures. That didn’t happen in this instance, but pro wrestling crosses all borders, cultures and ages. On three different occasions in my life I've heard thousands of Germans chant, "Suck It!" with a perfect American accent.
Round and round!
What comes around, goes around!
It worked. It just did. You could argue that his preceding fame ensured that anything would've, but he was the only man in the world that night who considered egging 5,000 British wrestling fans to clap along to a spoken word rendition of a hair metal radio hit. Maybe you had to be there, but it was Andy Kaufman-brilliant.
Later, on the bus back to the airport hotel, I sat across from Foley when two of the most veteran talents brought up the promo. After he'd finished on the mic, most everyone had an opinion.
"I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like that. Ever," one veteran told him. There are myriad ways to interpret that statement in the backstage world of pro wrestling. But in comedy, could there be a higher compliment?
Four years later, a packed audience is waiting to see Foley as a headline comedian, starring in an "Evening With Mick Foley" at the Comedy Caravan in Louisville, KY. "It's definitely a warm crowd," one of the opening comics quietly confides. "I mean, these people are wrestling fans here to see Mick Foley, but that's great for us. They're a forgiving crowd and they show up wanting to have fun. Best case for us."
It's early March, and in a month he'll be receiving the highest honor in the professional wrestling industry — induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. This year's ceremony will take place in Madison Square Garden, no less. It's the building where a young Foley fell in love with the art of pro wrestling while watching Jimmy Snuka plunge from the top rope. He tells the crowd on hand that he'll be trying out material for his induction speech for the Hall of Fame broadcast. It's unclear how serious he is about that claim, but I imagine his anecdote about sabotaging a perpetually naked Diamond Dallas Page — one of Foley's former travelling partners — with a bed full of cookies in an Econo Lodge won't make the cut for WWE's modern TV-PG programming.
Nor will the story of a group of veteran wrestlers and a young tag-along rookie named Dwayne Johnson, who is now better known as The Rock, soaking in the sights of a live sex show in a German red-light district.
"Eventually we all stop looking at the girl up there, and start watching the guy," Foley says. "We noticed he's got a knee brace on, but he's still up there performing. Of course we're fixated on that, because we're a bunch of wrestlers. 'Look! He's working hurt! What a professional!'"
Mick Foley, hardcore wrestling legend, is now a stand-up comedian. It's an occupation that serves as an end point to one of the most unique progressions in the history of American celebrity. Foley has written numerous best-selling memoirs as well as a novel and a children's book. While I worked with him, I saw firsthand how his work as a public face for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) confounded countless reporters and TV producers, initially skeptical and assuming the pairing of sex abuse awareness and pro wrestling was just a hollow stunt. But it's the same Foley who made a believer out of hardened New York City media cynics who also apologized multiple times for delaying our interview. Louisville is a stone's throw from Santa Claus, Ind., and Foley's genuine obsession with the big, fat man pushed him to pull the celebrity card and coax the owner of the Santa Claus Museum to open his doors offseason for a special visit.
Foley's years of working a heavy charity schedule for WWE introduced him to a variety of celebrities, including a meeting with Jon Stewart during an appearance at Walter Reed Hospital. While working with Foley, one day I received a call from The Daily Show, which needed a Senior Ass-Kicker for a sketch they were writing. The premise was that Foley, professional wrestler and hardcore legend, was being sent by Stewart to protect an elementary school boy who made the news for standing up to bullies because he spoke out against homophobia. Naturally the man named King of the Japanese Deathmatch was already abreast of the news, took the offer and nailed the bit in the process.
It was just like RAINN, or the pages of the Christmas-themed book he's rewriting for WWE that are sitting in his hotel room after the show. Foley's career path has been a form of inertia, the idea that a celebrity built on the base of wanton self-destruction could repurpose that fame to express himself compassionately and genuinely, all while never disrespecting what brought him to this point.
"Ironically, 1998 and Hell In A Cell," he says of the famous match with The Undertaker, "was the birth of my comedy career. Because after that I realized then that I had to connect with people on a different level."
He could've been inducted on the merits of that single event. It was the third such match in WWE history and the first between The Undertaker and Foley, who at the time was a Mankind character that had devolved into a psychopathic heel. There's no hyperbole in stating that Foley could've died that night. In the days leading up to the match, Foley and longtime friend Terry Funk hatched the idea of starting the match on the top of the steel cage and executing a large spot at the outset rather than at the end, as is typically the case.
Just minutes into the match, The Undertaker tossed Foley from a height that's been estimated to be in the area of 22 feet when including the angle and trajectory. Foley landed on the Spanish announcer’s table (thus cementing what would become a WWE tradition of that particular set piece meeting its regular doom), dislocating his shoulder on impact. Technically the match was stopped — for real — as paramedics tended to Foley. He would return shortly, removing himself from a stretcher being ushered out of the arena, and both men would scale the cage again.
This time ‘Taker would chokeslam Foley on top of the cage, but in an unplanned moment, a panel of chain-length fence gave way, dropping Foley to the ring below. He remembers nothing after that. In multiple interviews, as well his biography, Funk has stated that he was convinced Foley had died. Before the match would end, Foley would be on the receiving end of a chokeslam into tacks and suffer a dislocated jaw from a chair. He has no memory of it.
"It was a crushing defeat," he says. "It's sort of odd to be known for a match you were knocked out in and you barely remember."
Despite being tied in history as pro wrestling's momentary Bird and Magic, the two don't speak often. Foley temporarily draws serious in admitting a shared bond with the man who almost killed him.
"People throw around the term 'respect' a lot, but I've been such a fan of that character. And over the years, even if we don't see each other for a year, there's always that respect, and a friendship. We have that bond. After last year's WrestleMania I felt like I was the only guy, with that bond, who could go up to Undertaker and say 'Whatever you do ... don't start Tweeting,' he deadpans.
"We don't want to live in a world where The Undertaker is saying 'LOL.' That's our bond. It's an understanding that dead men don't Tweet."
Making light of that match has become a hobby. The only time he grows impatient during conversation is when he's pressed for specifics on that particular match. There's a sense that despite his making a career of grisly, excessive spots, he's exhausted by being defined as the guy who got thrown off a cage. It's possible he's decided to fashion his most violent moment into comedy to cope with the average person's perception of his character. Maybe it's a rebuttal, a defense that, hey, Cactus Jack or not, he's still a best-selling author and humanitarian. Or maybe he's just exhausted by its novelty. He even works a joke into his routine about the dumbest thing he's ever been told, in which a random fan approached him recently outside a gas station and offered an unsolicited analysis of the famous spot: "Since you landed on the table, even though you fell off the cage, that table broke your fall, so it wasn't real, and you didn't really get hurt!"
Foley ends the bit with a big grin, but a heavy dose of cynicism, previously lacking from his act.
"You're right! It was a MAGIC TABLE!"
There's a good number of old pro wrestlers who can still work at a surprising rate. A good number of them have to, to make ends meet in an industry that's fiscally unfair even for show business reasons. In large part because of concussions, Foley cannot work at the level he did in his prime, nor does he have to anymore.
"I've always said I had six or eight," says Foley, "but I've said before that number could be in the hundreds if you include temporary moments where you just see stars."
There's no way to prevent concussions in pro wrestling. The trauma is inevitable within the framework of the sport and still accepted as such, even by younger talents. But while the sports entertainment industry has always operated lawlessly in comparison to organized sports, head trauma is one health concern that's been addressed. Head-on chair shots are gone from the WWE. Officially, Foley's brutal scene with The Rock in 2000's "I Quit" Match at the Royal Rumble, in which he took 11 consecutive unprotected shots directly to the head, will never happen again. During the carnage, Foley was handcuffed from behind, preventing a wrestler's common defense of raising his hands to deflect and absorb the blow. That compounded the brutality of the moment, but increased its legend, a trade-off he'd made countless times before.
"The one move I should've added to the repertoire is that I should've blocked chairs. I never did. Part of it was that macho thing, 'Hey, look at me, I'm not blocking and everyone knows it.' As my knees started to go, I still wanted to go and put on a good physical show. But no one ever went to me and said, 'Hey, you should take more shots to the head.' They started becoming a more frequent staple of the diet at the exact time they should've been reduced. But that was a choice that I made."
It wasn't any chair shot that sobered him up, but rather his own research on brain damage — and Ric Flair. Foley says that after a match with Flair around 2010, he realized he'd suffered a concussion without ever being hit in the head. He claims he was most likely concussed from one of any number of moments that caused a sudden movement in which his brain impacted the interior of his skull.
"It's that rattling, inside the head," says Foley. "Even a few years ago I never would've believed that an elbow off the ring apron where you're landing hard on your hip could contribute to that."
Foley wants to donate his brain to science, and keeps his medical paperwork updated annually in the event of his death. He muses about that actual act with sincere altruism in the face of violence — sort of his trademark approach.
"It's not a pleasant thought," he says, "to have your skull opened up and your brain taken out for study. But if people can learn from my mistakes it's probably the least I can do."
His biggest worry is that his short-term memory will go. He's effortless in rattling off two hours of stories and anecdotes with a comedian's timing, but when he took a series of brain trauma tests three years ago, the prospect of losing his retention and grasp of the present and the increased risk of early onset Alzheimer's shut him down for good. Just as research into the field has advanced quickly, so too have preventative measures. Foley claims that even if a young talent came to him to discuss using a chair shot in a match, any encouragement would result in a firing.
"The guys should not have the ability to do what they think would make the match memorable," he says. "The guys need the governor placed on them, and that's a term I wasn't even familiar with until Mr. [Vince] McMahon came to me after Hell In A Cell. He told me that while I had no idea how much he appreciated what I had just done for the company, that he never wanted to see anything like that again."
It's a somewhat hypocritical stance, and Foley acknowledges the irony of advising against actions that ultimately made him a millionaire in a business in which success is so difficult.
"Just recently I saw an amazing, amazing house show match between CM Punk and Alberto Del Rio" he says. "And afterwards Punk is in the back, all wrapped up like a mummy with ice packs. And I tell him, 'Look, you don't have to go that hard all the time. You really don't.' But he tells me, 'I do. I have to, that's who I am, and I wouldn't be here without that.' And I understand that. I could've not done that physical stuff."
There will likely never be a union for professional wrestlers. The income disparity is disproportionate, and the concentrated power structure will likely never allow it. If there was, Foley would be an ideal candidate to head it. His historic and notorious cheapness helped him manage his money frugally.
"In my heart I think we should be a part of SAG-AFTRA," says Foley. "But I don't think you'll ever have a wrestlers' labor union. And I'm not advocating on the side of big business, but there's only a handful of guys making a big living, and the rest of the guys have to supplement their living by working on the independent level. And the guys aren't going to give that up."
Even if his major push in WWE had never come, he would've been financially stable, something very few workers past or present can claim. The image of the broken-down, penniless and beaten-up wrestler of the 1980s resonates strongly with younger talent. Whereas hotel bars were the den of any travelling promotion, most of the 30s-and-under superstars today cope with jet lag and hotel boredom with sober video game tournaments. Foley straddles the line, having come up in the old school, but with a unique eye on fiscal and chemical self-preservation.
"I definitely think the new generation of wrestlers have learned from the mistakes of the past. While I might not think video games are that great a thing personally, I think the guys who travel with the game systems and bond over video games rather than drinks after the show is a very, very positive development. I don't see any of the pressure that used to exist to be one of the guys by proving their mettle in a bar."
Foley is one of the only veteran wrestlers I've known who holds zero regard for any of the badges of honor earned in "the old days." He feels no need to pass on unnecessary or outdated hardships as some kind of ritual to teach respect.
"I think the days are over of guys being out 350 days a year," he says, "working all the time and having the destroyed family life and the injuries as some kind of prerequisite for respect in this business. Companies like WWE are now understanding the kind of investment they have in guys, so if there's an injury, you treat the injury. The guys as investments do better when they're healthy."
He stops himself and starts laughing.
"I'm really not trying to compare wrestling with civil rights, but I think in both instances you could say we've come pretty far. It was 50 years ago since the Civil Rights Act and now we have a black president. It was 20 years ago when Jesse Ventura dared to have an agent in pro wrestling."
He admits that he enjoys comedy now more than he did wrestling in recent years because of a lack of confidence in his ability.
"I knew to some degree that I shouldn't have been out there and that I needed some big moves to give people a Mick Foley match. I'm not really nervous now with the comedy shows because I really enjoy them. It's as close of a feeling as being in the ring as you can get without any of the injuries."
It is the morning after the comedy show, and Foley is reconciling achieving the satisfaction of performance without the penance of all that physical pain.
"I don't know if you could grasp how fulfilled I was with last night's show," he says with a broad smile.
"Doing these shows reminds me so much of being in the ring," he says, "just without getting hurt. The emotions you bring out. I get just as much out of people watching me intently as I do with the laughs. I wish I never branded what I do as comedy because I like the dramatic stories. I like there to be a comedic release of tension. But I don't think I have to have a laugh every 10 seconds in order to have a successful show."
Thankfully he's comfortable with the idea of not having to apply that same fervent desire to achieve "hardcore status" in the comedy world.
"It didn't really click for me until I went up to the Montreal Comedy Festival," says Foley. "You're out there and you see all these people trying to achieve any kind of name recognition ... Here I was, a guy who had that almost chasing people away from my shows saying, 'No I'm not doing wrestling.' I would do it, but I'd get offended. But there are nights that don't go well that hurt every bit emotionally as a bad match would. I'm learning to be comfortable with the idea that I don't have to do an hour of non-wrestling material for people to say, 'Hey, he's got some chops.'"
While he's developed those chops, his unique status has already landed him on comedic cornerstones like 30 Rock, where his Cactus Jack shirt had been previously featured on the air. Foley signed over the rights for the shirt's use and eventually landed a cameo on a later episode.
"I loved it," he says. "Tina Fey is a wonderful person and apparently a great person to work for, because it was really reflected in how her staff treats people. The only uncomfortable part of that process was when I raised my hand before the scene and asked if I could have a recurring role."
*** He is still a few weeks away from the Hall of Fame. He is sore and stiff, having just woken up after a late night of autograph signings. Even after spending five years watching the contorted horror behind the cartoonish look of wrestlers, Foley's condition still causes me to take pause. And not because of a limp or a strain, but because unlike the rest of his lot, he's grown sharper with age. He is secure, happy and still in demand for something other than the cacophony of violence he trademarked for all those years. Apropos of a Hall of Fame, he's won the game in this industry.
"I went out and saw Willie Nelson a few years ago at the North Shore Music Fair in Westbury [N.Y.]," says Foley. "And you get to see a lot of people at North Shore either on the way up or the way down; you don't really get people at their peak at Westbury. I'd seen some good shows where bands were giving their greatest hits, but they don't look like they're loving it. Then I saw Willie Nelson, and within five minutes I knew, man, Willie loves doing this. He was breathing new life into the classics, and the songs took a life of their own.
"I want to play the hits every night."