NZPWI writer James Cardno had the pleasure of talking to wrestling icon Mick Foley in October 2003. Foley was doing publicity for his book Tietam Brown (Random House, $34.95), but managed to speak for nearly an hour about a range of subjects.
This interview covers Foley’s thoughts on his writing, including Tietam Brown and his planned next release – including his possible plans of visiting New Zealand. He also covers a range of highlights from the early range of his career.
Many thanks to Random House Publishing and the New Zealand Listener.
James Cardno: Tell me about the book
Mick Foley: Man, the book was an idea I had in my head for a good year before I sat down to write it. I actually remember talking to Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon during lunch one day many, many months before it was written and telling them the idea about the “surprise Christmas Eve” visitor, which is one of the darkest moments of the book. They seemed fascinated by it, and I thought, man, I know I’ve got something here, but I’ve just got to continue to think about it and get enough confidence to the point where I could write it down.
You needed the confidence because it was the first book that wasn’t about your own subject matter?
Any time you veer away from something you’re comfortable at, it can be a little daunting. I just thought Man, this is fiction, this is something completely foreign to me, and it took a lot of time to get the guts and confidence to think that I could do it.
Your writing reminds me a lot of Stephen King…
Kinda… the imagery, the milieu.
You know what, his book called “On Writing” was a big influence on me. There were specific things I took from that book. He was big on dialogue attribution; remaining as “saids”, he didn’t like adverbs being applied. The exception to that rule is JK Rowlings who completely varies her dialogue attribution and uses and adverb after every one of them, and she seems to have done OK. King felt like the dialogue itself should be descriptive enough, without having to say “Joey chuckled amusingly”, that type of thing.
Don’t go for the cheap pop?
Yeah, it would be the cheap pop. He also talked about not being too descriptive, that you lay the outline for a scene, or for a character, a character’s physical attributes and the reader will almost always paint a more complete picture than a writer possibly could, and I know sometimes that when I read stories where they’re too descriptive, like about what somebody’s wearing, or what a room looks like, it can be annoying.
I definitely took from King’s book that sometimes less is more, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be descriptive when the time is right, but there is a time and a place for it, and it’s not every page and every scene.
Do you have any plans for a next book?
Yeah, I’m just finishing up working on… well, it’s very much in progress, but it’s based around baseball, a most favourite of American pastimes. But that’s just the thread holding the story together; it’s about a young boy growing up in the Bronx in New York. That was an area where a lot of the white families got scared by immigration, and seeing all sorts of different nationalities moving in to the neighbourhood. This kid comes from one family who decides to stay, in spite of the “white flight” from the neighbourhood, and it’s about his experiences in a very multicultural, very urban area.
Any chance of seeing you down here publicising it?
I don’t know… yeah, I’d really like to. I understand that WWE is doing regular tours in Australasia?
Yeah, they just had Ruthless Aggression, a RAW brand show in Sydney
Well, you never know. I’d definitely be interested in possibly seeing… if there was any chance… you know, of possibly piggy-backing down there on one of those tours and getting to meet all of… all of my fans in New Zealand.
Moving on to wrestling. Some of the “highlights” of your career… your ear went missing during a match with Vader. What was he like?
Vader was about 6’6″, 440 pounds and he was known as the roughest man in the business. He was a monster. Guys would see their names on the list with Vader when I was in WCW – the younger guys, who are sometimes referred to as enhancement talent, guys who were more or less there to be raw meat for the big stars. When those guys saw those names on the list with me, they’d actually be happy about it, because they thought they’d have a pretty good match on TV in front of their friends and family. When guys saw their name on the list with Vader, they’d actually go home!
So there’s a basis of fact behind Vader’s reputation for working stiff?
Oh man! Oh yeah! He just crushed people! He did a number on me a couple of times in the course of very dramatic matches. Not where he was trying to abuse me, but he broke my nose twice, dislocated my jaw and gave me stitches above and below the eye all in one match.
We had a history of having very rough matches, and on this night in question, I believe it was March 14, 1993, I came in the dressing room and said “We’re gonna tear the house down, right!” And he said “not tonight”. And I said “Why?” He said he couldn’t wrestle because he had a bad arm injury. So, I took it upon myself to say “Hey, don’t worry about it, I’ll do most of the work tonight”. As part of trying to fulfil that commitment, I did the dreaded “Hangman’s move”, where my neck gets caught in the ropes legitimately. On every other occasion, I’d be able to get out relatively injury free. I say relatively, because I actually had the ear stitched several times, and it was a dangerous, painful move. But on this night in Munich, Germany, the ropes – which were actually elevator cables, covered with a rubber coating – were just so tight that I was being squeezed down, the ropes were squeezing the sides of my neck, and I was quickly passing out, and so when I squeezed my head out, my ear did not make the trip with me. It wasn’t torn off, it was pushed off, which I believe is the most painful of all ear amputations.
Next… You being voted Time man of the year, then having your name removed?
It was very insulting. I was told that Time magazine did not feel that I had done anything to make me worthy of being man of the year, and I think that it’s a little bit arrogant to start setting boundaries. There were other entertainers on that list that were considered valid, and since that time I’ve gone on to write four New York Times’ bestselling books. I was wounded by it, and angered mostly. I thought it was a travesty.
You appeared on the Halftime Heat show, where you appeared in a pre-taped wrestling match during the halftime break of the SuperBowl. Why do you think you were the one chosen? How do you perceive your particular appeal?
My appeal? I dunno, I think whereas most of the wrestlers come off as being superheroes, I come off as being one of the guys. I’ve seen so many times where a family of Rock fans will be waiting for him to get off the plane, and they’ll just kinda nervously wave to him, and then I come stumbling off in sweat pants and flannel, and they run up and start hugging me. They’re clearly bigger Rock fans than they are Mankind fans, but they feel like I’m approachable.
Now, as part of the Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection, you were – I believe – in the highest rating segment on WWE television to date for the “birthday party”. Why do you think that segment – a non-wrestling segment – rated so well?
Man, there was a great buildup to it. They did a lot of teaser spots, showing me with a mystery guest talking about this party I was going to throw with the Rock. I think the two of us had enough background together, both in the ring and out of the ring to where people knew it was going to be funny. Once the festivities started, the ratings were so high that people had to have actually been picking up the phone and calling their friends and saying “You’ve got to turn the television on”. When we finished, Vince McMahon was mad because we’d gone about 15 minutes over our allotted time, and it wasn’t until the next day when the Rock nudged me and told me what the ratings were that we kinda breathed a sigh of relief.
Then we both went looking for Vince and really stuck it to him, and he was like cowering. He knew he had it coming, because he had been so wrong in his judgment.
A famous faux pas was when Tony Shiavone announced on Nitro to not bother watching Raw, and announcing that you were due to win the title. Rather than being put off, it appears that many viewers switched channels to watch your victory. What was it like winning that title?
Do you guys get Confidential?
No, not yet.
OK, well I said it on Confidential, but I’ll just say it like I haven’t said it. Back in 98 and 99, things were happening so fast that you couldn’t really take it all in, whereas when I was honoured at the Garden recently, I was able to take a step back and realise, hey, this is one of the biggest moments of my career.
Things were going at such high speeds that I didn’t really have time to appreciate the importance of the big title belt. It felt great, it certainly wasn’t something I never thought would happen, but I didn’t understand just how big a deal it was
Your greatest moment in the ring?
I think, looking back on it, my last match in ECW in early 96 was one of those magic moments, because there was no way in the world I figured that the fans would react that way to me. I was a very legitimate bad guy to the ECW fans…
… And they’re a brutally smark audience…
Absolutely. They really seemed to resent the fact that I was heading to the WWF, and their comments to me were very legitimate. They used to chant you sold out, so when I showed up for my last ECW match, I thought ok, I’m gonna be spit on, yelled at…
… and I came out and got the most phenomenal applause of my career, and it almost felt magical because it was so real and so unexpected. I think that was the best moment of my career. It was a very good match, it won’t go down in the annals of history as an all time great, but the pre and post match shenanigans were among the greatest things ever.
Back to the book. What inspiration from the wrestling world?
The 16 years I spent on the road was tremendously both beneficial and influential. It’s strange, because I think those years altered my perception of what was strange. I didn’t realise how shocking a lot of this book would seem. I remember telling a friend of mine who said he liked dark stories that he probably wouldn’t enjoy my book because it was a sentimental love story and it wasn’t until I started getting feedback that constantly used the word “dark” that I had to take several more looks at it, and finally thought “OK, I see where people get that”, but that wasn’t my intention.
With the wrestling, there are specific references. For example, when Andy goes to his dad for advice on girls, and his father comes forth with some of the most questionable parenting logic ever, that was almost verbatim a speech I received from a fellow wrestler back in 1992 and I thought this is horrible. But it’s quite funny.
Can you say who it was?
No, I can’t. I promised him that I wouldn’t ever say. But, he’s not ashamed of it. He’s seen that chapter, and he stands by it. But I promised.
James Cardno: Tell me about your recent “return” to the WWE?
Mick Foley: It is quite a bit different, and I didn’t really come back. Granted, I got beat up four times…
… that steps spot looked BRUTAL, where you got thrown over the steps in the ring…
Yeah, I couldn’t understand why people made such a big deal out of it, because I thought it was relatively easy. Then, the next morning I woke up with me knee swollen, and thought “Yeah, maybe it is a big deal”.
Part of the reason I came back was to let the wrestling world know that I had a new book out, but at the same time, if that was the only reason I was back, I think wrestling fans would’ve resented it, so I went out of my way to work hard and make the hell in a cell as important as it could be, and I just thought that meant getting physically involved. I think there’s a big difference between coming back and getting beaten up a few times and doing it every single night or four or five times a week for years at a time. The body does recover. I feel a lot better than I did when I retired, and I’m hoping I’ll continue to feel pretty good.
What are the chances of you showing up in some capacity at WM XX? Are you going to be booked for the show?
Not as of now, but I’ve made it pretty clear that I’d like to be a part of it. I don’t know if that means having a match or not – it might. By that point, it will have been four years since my last match, and by wrestling standards, six weeks is a legitimate retirement. So if I were to come back once or twice a year, I don’t think fans would think any less of me; in fact, I think they’d enjoy seeing it.
When you were fired by Vince McMahon in his corporate jet… How shoot was it?
Pretty much totally. That’s one of the wonderful things about wrestling – you can say exactly what you feel, and then shake hands afterwards.
Do you script your promos?
The best ones are not scripted. In that case, I actually gave Vince the line about the Dude Love toilet, where I said “it was guys like me who bought this plane, you oughta be naming this plane after me”, and he said “Yeah, that’s it, I’ll call it the Dude Love toilet”. That was actually me saying hey, that’ll be a funny line.
But the emotion behind it was very much legitimate. I was never a believer in the scripted interview, because you just cannot recite someone else’s words with the same emotion. There’s a certain element of magic in wrestling, and what I mean by that, the intangibles are what separate the good moments from the great ones, and those intangibles have to come from the heart, they can’t come from a writer’s pen.
Tell us about your three main characters.
Dude Love is what I wanted to be when I was 17, and even when I started wrestling professionally at 19, he was still what I aspired to be, and what I really thought I would end up being. I just became Cactus Jack until I could learn the ropes and become good enough to take on the Dude Love moniker. Nature just didn’t agree with me, didn’t cooperate, and I took to being this kinda wild child, and then he evolved into something of a psychotic brawler who also seemed to have developed a heart of gold somewhere along the way, and had some runs as a good guy and a bad guy, and I thought it was one of the best drawn characters, most multi-dimensional of characters.
But, Vince McMahon felt differently, so when I got the call in 1995 that the WWF wanted me, unfortunately Cactus Jack wasn’t included in the deal, he wanted me to be somebody else.
What do you think of “WWE repackaging”? Sorta like how they’ll take a really successful gimmick from another fed and have to retool it, seemingly sometimes just to put the WWE stamp on it?
I think Vince takes a lot of pride in “making” people. If he’d gotten me a year later, I believe he’d have grabbed at Cactus Jack, because he was an established WCW guy. When the wrestling wars were in full swing, they just wanted to raid talent; both sides did. But when I came in during 1995, Vince wasn’t a fan of the Cactus Jack character, and he wanted to do something new.
So, Mankind was my attempt to create something of a Frankenstein-like character, a product of society gone wrong; a bad guy who wasn’t really bad, but whose actions were a little bit inappropriate. I used to get into that character. I’d sit down in that Boiler Room for a couple of hours. On TV taping days, I’d wear that mask for five to six hours. You contrast that with the latter-day Mankind who became almost a Muppet-like children’s character. I would hear that music play, and then I’d slather on some Vicks Vaporub under my nose and put my mask on, because by that time it smelled so damn bad. I wasn’t so deeply into character, but I had created something altogether different.
Moving on to the current WWE… What do you think of the demasked Kane gimmick? (NOTE: The interview was conducted at the time of the JR burning).
I dunno; I’m waiting. I think the jury’s still out on how they’ll pull that off. I think it was time to do something else with him, and I think time will tell whether this was the right step to take.
Your bet on the next big thing?
Kurt Angle is phenomenal, and Brock is very close to being on that schedule; I saw him at this last PPV and thought MAN this guy has gotten good. It would’ve been nice if he’d come into the WWE as a complete package.
What do you think of a guy like Bill Goldberg who has this gimmick that is based largely around beating people?
It’s a hard thing when your persona is based around being unbeatable, because eventually you will be beaten, and then it’s a hard road to rebuilding.
Incidentally, that was one of the nice things about my character – wins and losses were not that important. Even for the Rock’s character, the persona wasn’t necessarily about a win-loss record. He could lose matches regularly, and talk about being the greatest, and the most electrifying man, and people would buy into it wholeheartedly.
I think people realise that I usually have something fun to say, or at least something interesting. For a while it was frustrating, because the guys who were getting over were the guys with the catchphrases. I would try to add some type of depth to my interviews, but people weren’t responding. But when they did, they did it all at once, and all very quickly – it all exploded. I think there was some sense of appreciation that I was not just going out there and going through the same routine every night.
When it’s forced, the audience won’t pick up on it. I think the guys are at risk when they start TRYING to create catchphrases, and TRYING to force them on the fans. It was really sad to watch guys who were so over with the fans slowly drying up and dying, and not realising it; not realising that hey, you can’t let the times pass you buy, you’ve got to adapt a little bit and give the fans something more. Once you lose the people, it’s awful tough to get them back.
A sense of desperation? Frustration?
Oh yeah, I remember being real frustrated where I was trying to do something and people were chanting boring. I came back – and I’m not a big curser – and I was just throwin’ stuff and cursing. This is when I was with Paul Bearer, and I was just thinking, these people, they’re just so used to chanting or cheering every 10 seconds that if you did something different, they were not in the mood to listen.
I guess… 1998 was when I really made the decision to start going the comedy route, because everybody was either a tough guy, or pretending to be a tough guy. Everyone saw what Austin did and thought that’s route to success, so we had 49 tough guys and one guy – who, arguably, had the best tough guy resume of anybody – appealing to the fans on a humour level.
I’d rather have no humour than lousy humour. Comedy’s not easy; bad comedy is easy to do, good comedy is difficult, and I think if the comedy is not adding to someone’s character, then they have to curtail it. They do have guys who can make it happen. I’m lucky that when I was commissioner, I had a lot of funny heels to work off – Edge and Christian were great, I had Kurt Angle to play off of, Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco. Shane did a great job with me in some of those things. And then I could get serious when the situation called for it, and it came across… it’s kinda like the book – the violence is so shocking because the boy’s voice is so tender, and I think that when I did get serious it would mean something.
Overall, what do you think your legacy is going to be? You talk about sometimes being “Hell in the Cell” guy…
I have put my name on quite a few things, but I’ve come to accept that that is what the fans will always remember me for. I will go speak to groups of kids at schools, hundreds of kids in a big assembly, and after I talk to them about the importance of literacy and the importance of not bullying, I will then take questions, and a hundred hands will go up, and I’ll say “oh, by the way, it DID hurt when the Undertaker threw me off the cell” and literally 90% of the hands go down, like that’s what everybody wants to know. So I’ve come to grips with it; I have other stuff, like the Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection stuff that I’m equally proud of, but no-one wants to hear about.
I just stopped off between Cincinnati and St Louis – about halfway – I stopped off at this amusement park called Holiday World, and they’ve got two of the best wooden roller coasters in the country there, and I stopped off, and it was cool, I was by myself. You’d see people, wrestling fans, and I’d say hey, you wanna ride with me? So I probably did five rides, then I hit the road. I was talking to my wife on the way home and I said “I’m telling you, that was the most I’ve ever been recognised” and it’s three years after my last match. I think if I’d just been “Hell in the Cell” guy, that would’ve been pretty quickly forgotten, but I think when you throw into the mix that I was one of the most liked and respected guys over the course of many years that it made that match take on legendary status.