When you can bring an entire arena to scream their lungs out at the mere sight of a t-shirt, then you know you’ve got a gift for all mankind.
Incidentally, that gift belonged to Mankind, or more specifically Mick Foley. The mad genius responsible for some of the most iconic moments in wrestling. Whether it’s being thrown off Hell in a Cell to the memorable call of “With God as my witness he is broken in half!”, or your championship victory being a defining moment of an industry wide war, wrestling wouldn’t be what it is without Mrs Foley’s baby boy.
Under the guise of Mankind, Foley crafted a haunted and chaotic being who grew from a disturbed outcast into one of the greatest sympathetic heroes in wrestling history. In January of 2000 however, he was a character who simply couldn’t take it anymore, which led to one of the most incredibly simple but effective moments in wrestling, all from a single piece of clothing.
January 10th started out on a positive note for Mankind. After being fired a few weeks ago, The Rock and the majority of the locker room helped him get his job back. To make things even better, he was getting a shot at the WWF World Heavyweight Championship in a Street Fight at the Royal Rumble! However, by the end of the night the champion Triple H utterly brutalised him both during and after an eight man tag match. Mankind had been decimated, which led to this particular promo just days later on Smackdown.
“Mankind is one tough S.O.B., and Mankind is one hell of a fighter. So it saddens me to say that after the beating you gave me on Monday night, one thing Mankind is not, is ready to face you in a street fight at the Royal Rumble in Madison Square Garden.”
His white button up shirt still bore the dried blood from his beating, a constant reminder clinging to him of how unprepared he was for such an opponent.
The packed crowd in attendance don’t quite know what to make of this. Their hero admitting defeat, forfeiting the opportunity and lifting up the villain of the story with his humbled praise. Even Triple H seems a little taken back at first. He had come to the ring ready to continue the mind games, flanked by an imitation Mankind, and it even takes a few seconds to register the stroking of his own ego before his cocky smile beams out.
Had he already won the battle before it truly began? Mankind, the same being who after being thrown off the Hell in a Cell structure then clawed his way off the stretcher just so he could go through it all again – he kept going then but was giving up now?
Then it begins. The reveal comes in stages as fans slowly but surely begin to realise what they’re witnessing. Those in the know see predictions and dreams come to fruition. Cheers come as Mankind announces that he feels the WWF fans deserve a substitute.
“As a matter of fact, I think you know the guy.” the cheers grow ever louder, this time as the signature brown mask of Mankind comes off. Then the tattered, blood stained shirt is removed next, revealing a black sleeveless tee with the signature yellow wanted poster emblazoned proudly in the middle.
Mankind became Cactus Jack, and the packed house in Chicago, Illinois becomes absolutely unglued.
All this because of a black t-shirt.
Mick Foley was always a incredible storyteller, and truthfully there are more iconic moments and promos from the man (The Cane Dewey monologue in ECW, or his interview series with Jim Ross). However, there may be no better example of Foley’s mastery of his craft than this moment. A hardcore fan following the product already knows that Mankind is just one of several personas that inhabit the mind and body of Mick Foley, but if this was your first experience with wrestling, you would still be able to understand what was going on and be drawn in to the storytelling.
The transformation might be signalled by the black t-shirt, but it’s just one piece of the larger puzzle. The Mankind and Cactus Jack characters might both be Mick Foley, but they are two vastly different people. They talk differently, they stand differently, their eyes tell different stories.
You can see Cactus Jack before the costume change. During the promo Mankind is kind of hunched over, meekly standing as he admits defeats and calls for a substitute. He’s sympathetic, but not all that threatening. As he takes a few steps forward from this moment, the shoulders suddenly rise and his voice becomes stronger and harsher. Mankind calls for his replacement and then fades away as Cactus Jack takes control.
Then the mask comes off, both figuratively and literally. There’s no doubting this is a different person. Even if you knew nothing of both Mankind and Cactus Jack’s history, it’s clear that the dynamics of this confrontation have dramatically changed. Whether it be in the new man that stands where a shadow once stood, the crowd losing their minds, or the once cocky antagonist suddenly slack jawed and fearful.
Pro-wrestling needs to act like a comic book, assuming that the reader can be either a dedicated fan who knows every intricate bit of lore and needs more or someone flipping through the pages for the first time, or anything in between.
The hardcore fan knows of Cactus Jack from his days in Japan and ECW, being set on fire and losing an ear in Germany. You can even see a “Cactus Jack is back” sign as he announces himself with the renewed vigour of a hungry madman. Those fans know the history and the gravity of it all. They know Cactus Jack is the most unhinged and violent of the Three Faces of Foley. A new fan might not have these specifics, but they can still understand in this moment that the reveal of this shirt means that Triple H is no longer in control. Whoever Cactus Jack is, he’s not to be messed with.
There’s a certain poetry to it all. This is not the first time Cactus Jack has been officially introduced to the world of the WWF. For that you have to go back to 1997, and yet again the man who causes this is none other than Triple H, who then was going by the full name Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
We would see a glimpse of the madman during their SummerSlam steel cage match. Mankind had the match won, but chose to remove his mask and tear his brown over-shirt before launching himself off the top of the cage with an elbow drop to deliver the finishing blow; it was more a momentary homage than a full on debut.
A month later and this time it’s Dude Love, the remaining character in Foley’s box of toys and the original gimmick from back before he even became a pro-wrestler. He’s not feeling a Falls Count Anywhere match against Hunter because it’s simply not his style. He offers the spot to Mankind, who has dreamed of tearing into the opponent, but he knows someone who craves it even more.
Helmsley reacts a little differently to this first introduction of Cactus Jack and it makes sense, given the decidedly more campy introduction with all three versions sharing the screen simultaneously. It’s clear Helmsley knows the name as he responds in a fury fuelled by disbelief. However, it seems that he doesn’t know quite what he’s in for, appearing more annoyed by the fact Foley keeps shuffling the deck on him. Hunter tries to rush Cactus only to immediately suffer the consequences.
Three years later, and there’s no fury at the announcement, just fear. Triple H has seen his life flash before his eyes. He knows what the change means – that match three years ago saw him beaten around the arena before suffering a piledriver through a table. Now, Triple H instinctively backs himself to the other side of the ring and looks for possible exits. Left with no option he’ll initiate the offence, but the first chance Hunter gets he scampers out the ring and puts as much distance as he can between him and this demon.
To tie it all together, the World Championship Street Fight that Cactus Jack is coming back for takes place in Madison Square Garden. The exact same location back in ’97 where Cactus Jack was first introduced to both Triple H and the WWF world, and the same location Mick Foley hitchhiked to as a young fan to see Jimmy Snuka’s legendary cage dive in 1983.
Triple H would win, or more aptly survive that Street Fight, and later definitively win the war with Cactus Jack inside Hell in a Cell. These victories went a long way in bestowing Triple H with an undeniable sense of legitimacy and toughness that just holding the title doesn’t bring. Living to tell the tale of Cactus Jack does that.
In the words of legendary commentator Jim Ross at the start of their Street Fight:
“This persona of Mick Foley is the most evil, sadistic, psychotic competitor that I have ever personally witnessed in this business”
That is the man that Triple H went to war with and still managed to walk away champion. It was a culminating chapter in a storied rivalry that lifted the stock of both men over the years. A young Hunter Hearst Helmsley unlocked a more dangerous version of himself to deal with the deranged Mankind, and the unlovable boiler room freak became more sympathetic and human in the eyes of the audience as he kept coming for the spoiled Connecticut Blueblood. From there, both would become World Champions, Hall of Famers and icons of the industry.
Their years long rivalry and Foley’s entire career came to a head on that January night in Chicago when Mankind made way for Cactus Jack, and it didn’t matter if you were a dedicated fan or just switching over for the first time, you knew that the reveal of a simple black tee changed everything. Such is the power of a man who holds the crowd in his hands.