By Nick Perkins, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@WesternRebel)
Follow my WWE Royal Rumble 2019 live tweets during the show today via @WesternRebel.
It was never supposed to happen. Mick Foley was never supposed to be the WWF (now WWE) Champion. He was a good hand- solid in the ring and exceptional on the microphone. But he was not what Vince McMahon envisioned when he pictured a champion.
Comparatively speaking, The Rock was everything that Vince McMahon looked for in a champion. He was young, attractive, shaped like a Greek God and had roots in the business. The Rock was groomed to be a top star even before his first match and, despite a few hiccups, he was well on his way to becoming a megastar.
When Foley and The Rock met in the finals of the 1998 Survivor Series tournament to crown a new WWF Champion, it was The Rock who came out victorious, thanks to assistance from Vince McMahon and his son, Shane. The Rock was now the champion, be it people or corporate and Foley, well, he could just go back to throwing himself off cages and pulling socks out of his tights.
But something funny happened on the way to the forum. People were responding to Foley and his alter-ego, Mankind, like never before. Ever since Mankind was tossed from the top of the Hell in A Cell back in June of ’98 at the King of the Ring pay-per-view, fans started looking at him a little bit differently. So too, apparently, did Vince McMahon. Despite the allure of The Rock and his inevitable showdown with the WWF’s top star, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, McMahon was starting to come around when it came to Foley.
Maybe Foley was more than just a “stuntman” or a “solid hand.” Foley had captured the hearts of fans across the world and McMahon was starting to see dollar signs in Foley’s underdog story.
Plus, despite the character that he played on TV, McMahon did genuinely like Foley. WrestleMania 15 was always going to be The Rock vs. Steve Austin, but perhaps Foley could get in on the action as well.
He certainly deserved it. After three years of literally sacrificing his body, if anybody deserved to be champion, it was Foley.
Which is how, on December 29, 1998, Mankind and The Rock found themselves squaring off against each other one more time. This time, Rock was the champion and Mankind was the challenger. After a harrowing battle that spilled out all over the ringside area, Rock and Mankind found themselves back in the middle of the ring. Following some inevitable interference from Vince McMahon’s ‘Corporation’ and members of D-Generation X, it was McMahon’s other Golden Goose, Steve Austin, who would be the deciding factor.
Glass shattered and the live audience erupted as their hero marched towards the ring, grabbed a chair and clocked The Rock right over the head. Austin pulled Foley on top of The Rock and the ref counted 1-2-3. It only took a moment but, for Foley, time stopped. In that moment, everything preceding it flashed across Foley’s eyes. There were the Dude Love videos he made with his friends in college. There was the training with Dominic DeNucci. There were death matches and barbed wire and powerbombs. There were questions of worth, thoughts of self-doubt and, of course, that damn Hell in a Cell. All of those memories flooded Foley’s head as the referee brought down his hand for the third and final time and, just like that, Mick Foley was the WWF Champion.
In his New York Times Bestselling Memoir, Have A Nice Day, Foley wrote that he: “wrestled for fifteen years with the knowledge that I didn’t look like a star, let alone a champion. I had learned to accept and even love my role as the lovable loser who somehow never wins the big one, and I can honestly say that before that day of December 29, 1998, I never believed that it would happen.”
But it had happened. Mick Foley was the WWF Champion. For fans, it was recognition of the hard work of a beloved star. But for Foley, himself, it was affirmation that all of those bumps, all of those burns, all of those scars were worth it. Foley had risen from backyards to the big stage and, even if it all went away tomorrow, Foley could call himself the best in the world.
…For all intents and purposes, it went away tomorrow.
Foley was champion for about three weeks before he was tasked with defending his title against The Rock one more time. This time, it would be at the 1999 Royal Rumble and it wouldn’t be just a mere singles match. This time, Mankind and The Rock were going to make each other say “I quit.”
Storyline-wise, the “I Quit” match was Mankind’s idea. Whether it was actually his idea or not is irrelevant because, by the end of it, this match would end up as one of Mick Foley’s biggest regrets.
The match started out innocuously enough. Rock and Foley traded blows and, as usual with these two, the action spilled out of the ring and all over the arena. There were falls from scaffolding, moves on the steel ramp and some brilliant microphone work from both Rock and Foley. It was an intense match that fans didn’t think could possibly get more brutal.
But it did, and those final few moments of the match would haunt Foley for the rest of his life.
Foley had brought his wife and two children along with him to the match, a seemingly innocent move that would come back to bite Foley in the backside. As they sat front row for his match, they witnessed The Rock handcuff Foley, thereby immobilizing him for the onslaught that was about to occur.
With Foley’s hands cuffed behind his back, The Rock grabbed a nearby steel chair and swung for the fences. And by fences, I mean Foley’s unprotected skull. Foley stated that it was one of the hardest chair shots he had ever received. So, naturally, he came back for more. And more. And then some more. Between a mix of adrenaline, righteous indignation and testicular fortitude, Foley kept calling for shots and Rock was more than happy to oblige. Originally, there were only supposed to be five chair shots to the head that would end the match. That’s still five shots too many, but it would end up taking 11 unprotected shots to Mick Foley’s head before the match would finally end. Foley never quit, but shenanigans ensued that resulted in Rock taking the title, at least for that match.
But the real story of the match was Foley’s performance and the amount of abuse he took. Evidently, there was some legitimate heat between him and The Rock afterward. Both men had gotten carried away and with Foley’s family having to witness the brutality, tensions were high.
The filmmakers behind the documentary Beyond The Mat were on hand, filming backstage, and Foley would later see footage of his children crying out for their father as he was being bludgeoned. Foley would, of course, end up being okay (more or less), but this match and his family’s reaction to it is one of the hardest things to watch in wrestling.
What Foley gave in that match, as well as his career as a whole, cannot be understated. Twenty years have come and passed since that famous ‘I Quit’ match. In that timespan, fans have seen a myriad of memorable moments, but none have quite reached the brutality of the bout between The Rock and Foley. The Rock would go on to become the megastar he was always destined to be, both inside and outside of the ring. Mankind would forge his own legend, forever endearing himself to generations of fans. Both men put everything on the line on that cold January night and though The Rock came out on top, it was Mick Foley who etched his name in stone.
It was quite the achievement, since it was never supposed to happen.
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