Wrestling legend Mick Foley did stand-up comedy at Slim's last week. We missed it and feel bad, so we wrote this to make up for it.
Sometime in the not distant future, myself and a few hundred thousand other people will pay money to see two wrestlers beat the hell out of each other in a steel cage. No one will have made any promises, but everyone will hope that one of those men might lose his grip somewhere, fall spectacularly, and risk a very real injury pulling it off. Probably one of the guys will do it. That man might walk away fine, but there's always the possibility they could be paralyzed if something goes wrong. No matter what happens, unless he is seriously hurt, no one will remember it in a month, because he is not Mick Foley.
Now, there are a million reasons to love Mick Foley that have nothing to do with the simple pleasures of watching him wrestle, or take an impossible fall, or choke a grown man with a gym sock. In a business that still uses homosexuals for punch lines and lesbians as cheap titillation, Foley spoke out against bullying gay kids. He took his entire advance for his last memoir, Countdown to Lockdown: A Hardcore Journal, and donated it to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network where he also works as an online volunteer. Its co-founder, Tori Amos, wrote songs that inspired him about women's struggles.
Still, no one talks about Mick Foley anymore without mentioning his 1998 Hell in a Cell match against the Undertaker, though that's properly how it should be and we may as well talk about it now.
That match ended with the penguin-shaped wrestler falling once, purposely, off the top of the cage and through an announcer's table at the side of the ring, then again, accidentally, through the top of the cage and onto a bed of thumbtacks. For everything that had happened, the real weight of what he'd done didn't settle on the crowd until we saw that a tooth had been knocked loose, lodged in Foley's nose. It was an injury too improbable to be anything but real.
I had no point of reference for being thrown 20 feet down onto a concrete floor, but my imagination could come up with something that seemed like it might plausibly resemble the feeling of a tooth jammed in my nose, or even knocked out of the gums, swallowed, and choked back up through my nasal cavity and trapped there in nostril in mid-escape.
There has now probably been just as much prose written on the meaning of Mick Foley's tooth as has been dedicated to Captain Ahab's peg leg, and for reasons that aren't always that far apart when you get down to why people have to dissect any art. And wrestling is an art, and the performers are athletes, which I am writing more because I want wrestling fans to hear it than I am concerned about convincing ballet snobs.
Anyone can learn to fall, and since then a lot of men have thrown themselves from greater heights than Foley. Some even gracefully. But people still talk about Foley with the same reverence inspired by Babe Ruth's called shot, while also-rans like Rakishi, a 450-pound Samoan also thrown by the Undertaker off the top of a steel cage onto a flatbed truck, are forgotten.
Part of this is because Foley's match wasn't entirely planned to work out the way it did and part of it is because even the bumps they were prepared to take were relatively new for casual wrestling fans. But part of it is because people genuinely liked Foley in a way they hadn't liked wrestlers before, and, I think, were afraid for him.
For most of wrestling up until the late 90s, wrestling fans cheered for the guys they knew they were supposed to cheer for. There was a Saturday morning cartoon morality about the entire thing, and the way the company marketed its talent you rooted for Hulk Hogan for the same reason you rooted for Superman or saluted the flag. Foley was different.
By the time Foley rose up in the WWE wrestling fans had become savvier about how the business worked backstage. There were blogs about who was pissing off the bosses and who the writers liked. There were stories about talent coming up through the feeder territories and being groomed for big debuts and title runs. Then and now these guys were confident and big. They played good badasses. They were invincible.
After all of these men, who seem inevitable, strut down the long steel entrance ramp to the WWE ring, out comes Foley, who looked less like a walking ad for Gold's Gym than a caveman. Crazy at times, prone to hearing voices, self-depreciating, but not a powerhouse. Even when the fans did take to him and start holding up signs proclaiming, "Foley is God!" he told them he appreciated it but asked them to add an extra 'O' between the 'G' and the 'D' instead. He seemed like a guy anyone might know who had someone slipped through the system. He changed personas -- Dude Love, Cactus Jack, and Mankind most memorably -- with the only constant between them his seemingly endless ability to take punishment. And as the show became self-aware, and fans embraced the fiction of the storylines, the only thing that everyone agreed couldn't be faked was that getting hit and taking a fall hurt, even if you were only getting hurt the way you'd planned to. By making his ability to take those hits his defining character trait, Foley became more genuine than the people he was performing with.
Wrestlers who proclaim themselves unbeatable masters of the universe will always be fun, and I'll never stop cheering for the Undertaker to choke slam someone straight to hell. But Mick Foley's made it his life's work to get people cheering for a hero who just doesn't stop no matter what you do to him, even though he won't always win, and that does my heart some good.