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“You dial it up to 11”: How Mick Foley went from “broken in half” to autism advocate

As Mankind and Cactus Jack, Mick Foley put himself through the wars for a generation of wrestling fans. Now he’s in a different fight. Ahead of his appearance at our US event Collision alongside Tiki Barber, we spoke to him about where he gets the strength.

Before Mick Foley became WWF Champion, defeating the now-Hollywood A-lister Dwayne The Rock Johnson, there hadn’t really been a champion like him. There hasn’t been one since.

When he joined the organisation, those chosen to hold the championship and become the face of pro wrestling’s biggest promotion typically looked like a cross between a bodybuilder and an NFL quarterback. A few exceptions aside, they played characters rooted in classic all-American themes such as Stone Cold Steve Austin’s beer-drinking Texan and Hulk Hogan’s frat bro party boy.

Weighing in at close to 300 lbs with a shaggy beard and adopting a series of dark personae, Mick was a little different. He was an outsider; he had to fight for his place. Now with his in-ring wrestling career behind him, Mick continues to fight, using the profile he earned in a career of punishment to help others.

He’s volunteered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), working on their online hotline and logging 550 hours in just over a year, talking to those affected by sexual assault. He’s recently teamed up with KultureCity, a nonprofit supporting children with autism and their families.

Mick is reluctant however to put his willingness to help down to his own outsider status.

“I never thought, ‘I’m an underdog, I need to help other people who are underdogs.’ I think it comes down to whether you care about other people and whether you want to take advantage of the position that you’ve been given through the grace of WWE television to make a difference while you can,” he says.

“I just wanted to have great matches”

When Mick first joined the WWF, bosses were initially sceptical that Mankind, the schizophrenic masochist he played, could carry big matchups. He didn’t look like a champion. Screaming ‘Mommy’ and talking to himself in the middle of bouts, he didn’t act like one either.

“I just wanted to have great matches. I never really thought of myself as being in the championship picture so it didn’t hurt my feelings that other people didn’t think of me in that way,” says Mick.

It took a largely adlibbed 1997 interview to convince WWE CEO Vince McMahon of Mankind’s potential. A year later it was decided that he should be champion and he defeated the Rock in a No Disqualification match. Once he’d caught this break, the things that marked him out as an outsider and underdog actually helped. He says the fact that he wasn’t a mulleted, musclebound identikit wrestler made him distinct. He was given time to develop.

It’s often said that best wrestling characters are those that are natural extensions of the men and women playing them. As well as Mankind, Mick played the outlaw Cactus Jack, a man most comfortable in the most violent of matchups such as a 1995 Death Match where he threw himself onto a ring rigged with explosives several times.

It came easily.

“Cactus Jack was not much different to me, just wilder, and with the ability to absorb more punishment. You just dial it up to 11,” says Mick.

Mickfoley-inblogMick as Cactus Jack at Destiny Wrestling promotion

When Cactus debuted in the WWF, he began a storyline feud with Triple H, the son-in-law of CEO McMahon – a man with the wrestling establishment firmly on his side. Fans got behind Foley.

The pair took part in one of the WWF’s most famous matchups, a Street Fight rules match that featured barb wire, thumb tacks and a lot of blood loss. Mick says that the bond between the two will last a lifetime, and remembers particularly the aftermath of that bloody street fight, backstage recovering with Triple H.

“He won the match but he’d been through an ordeal. He was wrapped up like Boris Karloff in The Mummy. We took a great photo and he signed it for me, talking about the respect he had for me and how I was one of his favourite opponents. I keep it to this day,” says Mick.

An overnight advocate

Mick has contributed to some to some of the WWF’s most iconic moments. These moments, readily available in an age of video sharing, continue to resonate with the millennials who grew up during the WWF’s Attitude era.

His Twitter bio reads “broken in half”, a reference to commentator Jim Ross‘s reaction to Mick being thrown through a table from the top of a 16 ft-high steel cage. Over 1.5 million fans follow Mick because of these memories.

“As God as my witness, he is broken in half” – One of Mick’s most memorable moments

Since retiring from active competition, he still makes appearances on the WWE’s television network. It was one of these appearances, and the bracelet he wore in filming, that was the catalyst for his getting involved with KultureCity.

“About a year ago I mentioned on a WWE network special that the reason I wear an autism awareness bracelet is for my son Mickey. He actually came on and played some drums during that special,” says Mick.

After the appearance he says that overnight he had become an advocate for parents with children on the autistic spectrum. A call came from KultureCity Founder Julian Maha asking Mick to help. He was struck by the organisation’s message of autism acceptance and got onboard.

“There are parents who are struggling every day in what is an often-wonderful but often-frustrating adventure. It’s a different ride every day. In the same way that I tried to bring some help to people who are going through a tough time online with RAINN, I’m going to see if I can do the same thing as an advocate for KultureCity,” he says.

Mick will be giving his first public talk as a KultureCity advocate at our own Collision, where he’ll be appearing alongside NFL legend Tiki Barber to talk about how sportspeople can use their profile for social good. Nerves are beginning to set in.  

“It’s been a learning experience this year. I’m a little nervous to tell you the truth. There are so many great people who really care and know so much more than I do, and I’m just trying to learn,” he says.

It started with a bracelet

“I really was that guy”

Throughout his wrestling career Mick says that he was inspired by the reactions he could draw from the crowd. It didn’t didn’t matter whether that reaction was good or bad. He could play a villain and be booed from the stands and still be happy. He just wanted people to go home talking about his match.

“You wanted to take them away from whatever problems they’d been going through during the week and take their minds off that for a little while and escape into a world that you helped to create,” says Mick.

Mick says that the principles are the same with his work with KultureCity. He says he wants to use to the bonds he’s made with a generation of wrestling fans to further the organisation’s cause.

“For many years, I really was that guy coming into people’s living rooms. People could tell. The things I did while wrestling were fairly crazy. When you can see a way to reach and help people in the autism community, I can now say to myself, ‘Well this makes a lot more sense than the things I used to do,” says Mick.

Cover photo via wrestleradionow.com

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