Q&A: WWE legend Mick Foley brings ’20 Years of Hell’ tour to DC Improv

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Mick Foley at DC Improv (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “Good, God Almighty! … As God as my witness, he is broken in half!”

Jim Ross’ legendary call cemented the most brutal match in WWE history, as Mick Foley’s masked masochist Mankind faced the undead phenom The Undertaker in a “Hell in a Cell” match at the “King of the Ring” pay per view in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on June 28, 1998.

Two decades later, Foley looks back on that fateful night in his “20 Years of Hell” tour, which crashes into the DC Improv comedy club in Downtown D.C. this Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

“One of the things I plan to do with this show is take people behind the scenes and show the evolution, execution, aftermath and legacy of this infamous night,” Foley told WTOP. “I had no idea how important that night was going to turn out to be (with) a series of bizarre, surreal circumstances. The fact that we lived through it made that night take on a life of its own.”

While Foley and Undertaker had battled in other gimmick events, including “Boiler Room Brawl” and “Buried Alive” matches in 1996, they had a high bar for “Hell in a Cell.” There had only been one such prior match, a classic between Undertaker and Shawn Michaels in 1997.

“I watched the first one with Terry Funk and it was just an amazing match,” Foley said. “I was not an incredibly gifted athlete, not a great climber, not a great pullup guy, all the things you need to excel in that type of match. … Terry said, ‘I think you ought to start the match on top of the cell.’ We started brainstorming ludicrous ideas and laughing about how impossible it sounded. I turned to him and said, ‘I think I can do it.’ So, we had a way of starting the match.”

Thus, on a warm summer night in The Igloo arena, there was a chill in the air as Foley climbed the cage to start the match on top of the cell. Just minutes later, The Undertaker tossed Foley off the top of the cage, hurtling 16 feet and crashing through the announcer table below.

“The idea of starting a match that appears to end in ten seconds,” Foley said. “Jim didn’t know what was going down in the match, so he was calling it from the heart. … I remember when I got home, laying in bed, watching it over and over. I could not believe what had taken place. That immortal call, ‘As God as my witness, he is broken in half,’ if it wasn’t for a bias by purists in the sporting world, that would be acknowledged as one of the greatest calls of all time.”

As Foley was wheeled off on a gurney, the crowd was in for another goosebump surprise, as Foley rose from his stretcher and began climbing the cage again. “He wants to go back up!” Ross exclaimed. It was here that things took an unexpected turn. While that first bump had been intentional, the second wasn’t — a chokeslam through the cage, which unexpectedly broke and sent Foley crashing to the mat below, a chair knocking his tooth through his nose.

“The bottom fell out on us,” Foley said. “I think it was 42 seconds that I was unconscious. That to me is the irony of professional wrestling, that it’s considered a ‘fake sport.’ … Tell me one of your real sports that continues when one of the participants is no longer conscious? Of course, that wouldn’t be the case now. We’ve learned so much about concussions that the match would’ve been called in that moment. … The fact that we continued added to its allure.”

The finish put an exclamation point on a war, as The Undertaker chokeslammed Foley onto thumbtacks, then finished him off with a Tombstone Piledriver. Lying on the mat for the pin, you can see Foley’s genius final touch: a mini kick out attempt as the referee counts to three.

“Yeah, kicked my right leg,” Foley joked. “I was still trying.”

The unbelievably gutsy effort launched him to win the WWF title belt later that December, defeating The Rock on “Monday Night Raw.” The victory came with an assist from Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose glass-breaking music signaled arguably the largest crowd pop in history before laying The Rock out with a chair shot and allowing Foley to climb on top for the victory.

“There’s no better way to make a surprise entrance than by having your entrance music hit,” Foley joked. “Vince McMahon had stacked the deck against me, The Rock was his guy, the ring was surrounded in a lumberjack match, DX has taken me under their wing as an unofficial member and all the stars were in alignment that day. And I won with Steve’s help and the response was incredible. Everything that happened after the three-count was all ad-libbed.”

The moment also turned the tide in the Monday night TV ratings war between the WWF and rival WCW, which tried to give away the ending. At the time, WWF pretaped “Raw,” so WCW president Eric Bischoff got wind and told the audience in advance that Foley would win. Play-by-play announcer (Tony) Schiavone snidely quipped, “That’ll put a lot of butts in the seats.”

“It backfired big time,” Foley said. “That made me a bigger star overnight. Without those guys giving away the finish, there’s no 500,000 fans simultaneously flipping channels. … Right after the win, there was a huge exodus (back) to WCW because they had that huge main event at the Georgia Dome live, so they had something people wanted to see, it’s just Schiavone and Eric let people know there might be something more they’d like to see on the other channel.”

It also led to a memorable, monthslong rivalry between Foley and The Rock, including a “Survivor Series” screwjob, a brutal “I Quit” match, an “Empty Arena Match” at the halftime of the Super Bowl and a “Last Man Standing” match with a “Rocky II”-style double countout.

“We did November, December, January, February and Mania,” Foley said. “Then we went on eight months later to team up and really create some good memories for people. … We had great matches together, had great chemistry and made people (happy). It’s beyond flattering when someone will say, ‘I want you to know I was going through a really tough time,’ and they’ll point to that pairing more than anything else as something that cheered them up.'”

Their tag team, the “Rock ‘n Sock Connection,” was a beloved comedy duo with The Rock as the straight man and Foley as the lovable goofball. Of all their memorable moments, the pinnacle was a “This is Your Life” segment on “Raw” where Foley brought figures from The Rock’s past down to the ring in what remains one of the highest-rated moments in cable TV.

“The credit goes to Vince Russo for coming up with the idea,” Foley said. “He said, ‘Here’s the basic structure; you guys have fun.’ We went like 14 extra minutes on live prime-time TV. Mr. McMahon was seething that a 12- or 14-minute segment went 26 or 28. He thought it was an awful segment. This was before Twitter or texting, so fans must’ve been calling their friends saying, ‘You have to watch WWE!’ That’s the only thing to account for the rise in viewership.”

How much did the Rock ‘n Sock Connection mean to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? In 2004, after his ascension to Hollywood superstardom, The Rock returned to “Monday Night Raw” to team with Foley in a tag-team match against two icons in Triple H and Ric Flair.

“I never thought The Rock considered me on the level of some of his other opponents, so when I got the call asking if I would team up with The Rock in 2004, I said, ‘That sounds great, but I’d seen it in writing that he would only come back for something big.’ … Brian Gewirtz, who now runs The Rock’s production company, was like, ‘Yeah, Rock thinks this is big.’ I was like, ‘He does?’ … He talked so highly of me. I didn’t know it at the time, so it was really nice.”

The “Sock” in the equation was the sock puppet Mr. Socko, invented during the famous Austin-McMahon bedpan segment, then paired with his finishing move, the Mandible Claw.

“Most fans think it’s that disgusting sock he puts in people’s mouths, but it had been a nerve-hold finisher for two years at that point, so there was some history,” Foley said. “We didn’t know when we did the sock that it would lead to anything beyond that day. So when Vince Russo came up to me the next night in Detroit, ‘Bro, you got the sock? … They’re chanting for him! They’ve got signs for him!’ … Apparently, people liked me with a sock puppet.”

Did he ever use the same sweaty sock on multiple nights?

“The first few weeks it was the same sock but — with the exception of Al Snow — I was quickly becoming the least popular guy in the dressing room,” Foley said. “Then I just realized, not only is it proper respect to your opponent to have a clean sock, but it kind of gave me something to do after the match. You’d throw it in the crowd and people would dive for it.”

The introduction of Mr. Socko was just the latest element in an ongoing evolution between three characters — Mankind, Dude Love and Cactus Jack — the three “Faces of Foley.”

“If Mr. McMahon thought I looked like a star and didn’t think I looked sleazy, then I would have come in as Cactus Jack and there would have never been an evolution of characters,” Foley said. “He thought covering up my face would be my only way into the company and later realized I had an interesting backstory, not only as Cactus Jack but that I had this character Dude Love as a teenager. … It was fun and I get triple the royalties on action figures.”

Cactus Jack returned one last time for Foley’s penultimate rivalry with Triple H, including a “Street Fight” at the “Royal Rumble” and a “Hell in a Cell” retirement match at “No Way Out.”

“It was really big for both of us,” Foley said. “I had been banged up to the point where I was almost immobile; my knees were so bad. Triple H had great success with DX, but this was his time to prove he belonged at the top of the card as a singles wrestler. So it gave me a chance to go out the way I wanted, and gave Triple H a chance to prove he could carry the company on his shoulders. That’s when things are working best: when both people come out ahead.”

In retirement, Foley penned two best-selling memoirs, sharing stories about hitchhiking to Madison Square Garden as a teenager to watch Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and sleeping on the floor of Motel 6 during indie tours, peeling the curtain back on the pro-wrestling business.

“There was concern about how honest I was in the book, but my thought was people are going to respect WWE more when they’re finished,” he said. “I respected people’s intelligence, I didn’t try to portray wrestling as something it wasn’t, and I knew the facts were usually stranger than fiction. … I wrote it in 50 days in longhand, almost 200,000 words. Turned out, I had a conversational style people liked. It opened the floodgates for wrestling books.”

Whether it’s memoirs or sock puppets, barbed wire or thumb tacks, Mrs. Foley’s Baby Boy is always trying new things. This week’s “20 Years of Hell tour” will continue that trend with footage, memories and a Q&A session with fans at the D.C. Improv on Thursday night.

“I’ll be trying things out every night; some will fail, some will succeed, but hopefully in the same way my career went, everything will be done with passion and a firm belief in what I’m doing,” Foley said. “Anything that’s done really well will appear to be effortless, but this is something I really work on … trying to come up with the best show that I can.”

You can also expect his signature “cheap pop” to the local crowd.

“It’s great to be right here in Washington D.C.,” Foley joked. “Have a nice day!”

Find more details on the DC Improv website. Listen to the full conversation with Mick Foley below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Mick Foley (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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