For me, Mick Foley’s autobiography was an education in pro-wrestling. As I picked up this book a few weeks ago, I hadn’t watched WWE for more than 10 years. Recently, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel called ‘WhatCulture Wrestling’ and started binge-watching their videos. It made me nostalgic about all those times when I used to look forward to watching the Rock, Stone Cold, Undertaker, Kane and others. But more disturbingly, I found out that several wrestlers whom I used to enjoy watching had passed away like Eddie Guerrero, Test, Umaga, et al. In fact, the last big rivalry that I had watched involved one wrestler, Chris Benoit who killed himself after killing both his wife and child. It led me to plough the depths of the internet to find old clips and magazines of my favourtie moments, the legendary ‘Attitude Era’ and ‘Ruthless Agression’ era that I loved. But what I understood from all of that was that WWE was but a small part of the pro-wrestling universe. I realised that I was a casual fan when I was younger. I did not know about the Montreal screwjob, I did not know about WCW and the Monday Night Wars, I did not know much about ECW or New Japan Pro-Wrestling or TNA. In fact, I had missed out on all the best bits of wrestling culture. That’s when I discovered that one of the wrestlers whom I liked to watch apparently had written one of the best memoirs in the business, his name is Mick Foley aka Mankind aka Cactus Jack aka Dude Love.
I was surprised to know that Foley wrote the book himself when he could have easily hired a ghostwriter to do it like most of the other celebrities who try to publish autobiographies or memoirs. It traces Foley’s career from when he started building a wrestling persona around Dude Love well before he was even an amateur wrestler to his more famous antics with the WWF (now WWE). What I found most fascinating is the punishment that wrestlers go through to reach the top. The politics, the ridiculous schedules, the hazardous working conditions, the bloodthirsty fans make for engaging reading. I gained a whole new appreciation for what wrestlers do. The booking terminologies like ‘jobber’, ‘heel’ and ‘babyface’ were not things that I was familiar with when I was younger. It also put into perspective several famous storylines like Bischoff being recruited as the General Manager of RAW, the feud between Stone Cold and Vince McMahon, ECW versus WWE angle, among others.
The book was an education in how pro-wrestling shows are made:
1) The fans’ involvement in the storylines is something I didn’t quite know. I remembered conversations in school when we used to discuss how fake wrestling was. WhatCulture Wrestling had a great response to that. “So is Star Wars!”. Pro-wrestling is sports entertainment, the storylines are fiction, but the action is most definitely not. They obviously cushion blows and falls, but the impact is real and the injuries are oh so real. Till recently, the violence was so crazy that it left many a wrestler irreparably damaged. Edge, who made his reputation as a tag partner with Christian in several tables, ladders and chairs matches, then later as a solo heel, ‘the rated R superstar’ had to retire because of risk of paralysis. Then there is Daniel Bryan whose Yes chants took the WWE Universe by storm, but could only last two years at the top before being forced to retire. A few years before, they would have probably continued till they couldn’t anymore.
2) The concept of ‘pay-per-view’ which I used to think was called ‘paper view’ whenever JR or the King announced it during a WWE/WWF event. It had no context here in India as the big money shows and the regular weekly episodes were no different here. Sure, you anxiously looked forward to the Royal Rumble, Summer Slam, Hell in the Cell, Elimination Chamber or Wrestlemania because they had great matches where feuds ended or began, titles changed hands and legendary moments were made; but I used to see them as tournaments outside of regular shows. I could not understand on what basis the matches were booked.
3) The book helped me understand the histories of people who built wrestling empires, those who trained the wrestlers, the creatives behind the episodes and many others who worked in the background.
Back to Foley. Foley is a hall of famer and is most known for being a guy who took the most punishment in the ring. His game was that of being as hardcore was possible. His legendary bumps, Japanese death matches, and many other crazy stunts with barbed wire, flaming tables, thumbtacks are testament to that. First 30 chapters are dedicated to his pre-WWF days. In the 31st chapter, we read about a call from JR that the WWF boss, Vince MacMahon wants to meet ‘Mike’ Foley for a job with the ‘Federation’. It was not the WWE of today back then. This was before the Attitude Era when MacMahon was embroiled in a lawsuit involving steroid abuse in the WWF. It had taken a toll on the business and all the success that he achieved since the mid-70s was starting to die down. World Championship Wrestling (WCW) under Eric Bischoff had the upper hand on the ratings. Foley describes how Macmahon convinced him to wear a mask and how the character development of ‘Mankind’ was inspired by scenes from ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Mankind’s feud with the Undertaker also started around the time WWF began to use chairshots and outside-the-ring brawling quite a lot. Following his debut, he had a stellar rise to the top changing between Dude Love and Mankind with Cactus Jack making brief appearances. But his frequent change of characters was taking a toll on his credibility. It was then that he was booked in the now legendary ‘Hell in a Cell’ match with the Undertaker in 1998. If you have ever seen an episode of RAW or Smackdown, try to remember the montage of someone falling off the top of a steel cage while the announcer says,”Whoever you are, and whatever you do, please don’t try this at home”. However, Foley’s career plateued a bit after the famous match and he described how he couldn’t understand the Attitude Era fans’ disrespect for his old-school-ECW-style promos. The Attitude Era was littered with catchphrases and sexual imagery which Foley didn’t quite appreciate. He also felt that the Era passed him by as Stone Cold, and others surpassed him in popularity. It was telling how the new fans that the WWF attracted did not know about Cactus Jack’s feuds with Terry Funk or Abdullah the Butcher in his pre-WWF days reminiscent of the criticism that the now very young PG Era fans get in their cheerleading of John Cena. But as he felt his career was drawing to a close, he went back to being Mankind in a series of promos with Vince McMahon and a certain Mr. Socko was born. In yet another twist, Foley showed his ability to adapt to the audience and that’s what makes careers in this brutal business of pro-Wrestling.
I have no idea how he managed to pretty much remember everything he ever did in his career. After all those shots to the head, you could have forgiven him for losing some memory! The only flaw in the book might be that it suffers from too much content. I was a little bored by the details of every single match, the roadshows, and the injuries. The editor could have ideally removed some of that. But then, the man went on to write three more memoirs which probably sold a lot until he got the message with the last one. Overall, a great read especially if you are a regular follower of professional wrestling. But, it is quite a good book even for those who would like to understand why men and women beat other men and women in costumes with absurd storylines and people pay to watch it.