July 30, 2007
Mick Foley: Pro Wrestling and the Contradictions of a Contemporary American Hero (III of V)

The Star Image of Mick Foley

Mick Foley's character developed over the course of twenty years in pro wrestling. Following the definition provided by Ellis (1999: 539) of the star as "a performer in a particular medium whose figure enters into subsidiary forms of circulation, and then feeds back into future performances," Foley's star image emerges out of his various fictional personas and the public dissemination of information about his private life that is incorporated into his star image. The image in wrestling is the fictional character depicted on the screen. These fictional characters are usually either heroes or villains, although they may change freely between the two extremes. Pro wrestling thrives on the relationship between these heroes and villains to build toward eventual grudge matches that fans want to see. Wrestling heroes and villains are defined chiefly through their opposition, as a villain can become a hero by engaging in a feud with one even more villainous than he or she. Similarly, a hero can become a villain by coming into conflict with a hero more popular than he or she. In the case of a change, the star image usually only alters slightly, as wrestlers generally retain their same basic characters. The chief difference is their view of the fans, as the hero-turned-villain usually abandons his or her supporters, while the villain-turned-hero embraces the fans he or she once despised.

In pro wrestling, the wrestler is the commodity. As Birrell and Turowetz (1979: 220) point out, then, every appearance is an opportunity to sell his or her character identity. This commodification process likens wrestling to another form of public discourse, politics. For instance, as Roper (2004) analyzes, the selling of President George W. Bush's heroic persona during his "War on Terror" led to the cultivation of a protector-figure to respond to the terrorist attacks on America. Wrestling's connection to political life has often been articulated by former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (2004), who admitted that his understanding of marketing himself as a pro wrestler greatly informed his successful campaign for the governorship in 1998.

The wrestler is a particularly appropriate figure for a study of the star image as hero because, as Powell (1993: 62) points out, wrestling often "blurs the line between truth and fiction" and creates ring identities that are hard to separate from the performer. The wrestler's character may incorporate various aspects of the actor's life. In Foley's case, his stage name is his actual name, and Foley regularly includes his family and his personal life in his on-screen persona. In her ethnography of a training school for pro wrestlers, Mazer (1998, 169-170) finds that the wrestlers themselves often do not know when they have crossed the line from actor to persona. Despite this complicated integration, Mick Foley the star is not Mick Foley the actor behind this image, although aspects of his personal life certainly feed this star image. As Rodman (1996: 101) writes about Elvis, "There's an important distinction to be made between the real flesh-and-blood body of a given star and the mediated public persona that is all of that star that the general public is ever likely to see or know."

Mick Foley's star image has a narrative that wrestling fans know well. Foley began as a wrestler in the mid-1980s, as Cactus Jack from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Cactus Jack was labeled "hardcore" or "extreme" because of his love for brawling and the use of weapons in his wrestling matches instead of the more traditional approach of using wrestling holds and maneuvers. This persona built on an aspect of the American hero that Warren (1972: xxi) defines as an ability to withstand hardship and even defeat while eventually overcoming the odds and achieving a "victory of spirit" through a strong sense of self-reliance. By hailing from New Mexico and taking the name "Cactus Jack," the character connoted the American West, a symbol for traditional masculinity and rugged individualism, tying into the virtues of the American hero Turner (1958: 213) identifies as "the self-made man" and "the freedom of the individual."

Despite his early character's villainy, Foley's image was already developing many of the traditionally masculine attributes necessary for American heroism. He entered Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) organization, and his Cactus Jack image became recognized nationally. The character competed there throughout the early 1990s, transforming from a psychotic mercenary hired by villainous characters into a sympathetic warrior embraced by fans because of his tenacity. Cactus Jack's rise to acceptance by fans included a case of amnesia and Jack's ear getting ripped off during a match with a rival in Germany, a real event incorporated into Foley's mythology.

Fans often read this tragic event as indicative of Foley's superhuman toughness and his professional drive, considering that he finished the match without his ear and continued to wrestle despite his injury. For instance, according to the bio on the Unofficial Mick Foley Homepage, "Jack then had to make a decision, reattach the ear or go back to the States for his title shot at Slamboree. Jack chose the latter, and that is why Jack only have 1/3 of his right year" (sic). When Foley left WCW, his image further evolved through participating in "death matches" in Japan that involved barbed wire, fire, and other ultra-violent forms of competition. He then competed in the Philadelphia-based cult favorite Extreme Championship Wrestling, where his image gained a following among wrestling fans, although still usually treated as a villain.

By the time Foley was signed by Vince McMahon's WWE in 1996, his image was well
known by most wrestling fans. The WWE complicated that star image by creating a new persona for Foley: Mankind. Foley came into the ring with a Hannibal Lecter style mask. His look further emphasized actor Foley's physical weaknesses, such as his lack of toned muscular development, his pear-shaped body, and his severed ear. Mankind was depicted as a sympathetic monster, deranged because of his scarred body and possible abuse as a child and now willing to take out his frustration on other wrestlers. Contrasted with Cactus Jack's toughness, Mankind was an easily manipulated character because of his intense desire for a father or mother figure, evidenced by his latching on to various personalities in wrestling, including the cross-dressing Goldust as both mother and father figure. At this point, Foley's image had developed into that of an underground hero, and the growing sympathetic element of his character counteracted many of his violent actions. The significance of the name, Mankind, connotes not only his innocence but also his humanity and his primal nature.

Foley's image made the conversion from villain to fan favorite not through a particular change in his actions but through a four-part sit-down interview on Monday Night RAW in mid-1997 that made the character more three-dimensional and highlighted his sympathetic longing for acceptance. The interview included an examination of Foley's past by showing home videos from actor Foley's childhood of his pretending to be a pro wrestler. In the home videos, the young Foley demonstrated another persona, Dude Love, who used his initial rejection in heterosexual relationships to fuel a suave personality in the ring that made him a heartthrob among female fans. Both the Dude Love and Cactus Jack personas soon joined Mankind in the WWE, as all three characters fueled Foley's star image.

Foley's various personas strived to align themselves with other wrestlers, as his character continued to strive for acceptance. Vince McMahon's own star image, the evil Mr. McMahon, began taking advantage of Foley's naivete. Foley's personas grew even more sympathetic as they attempted to fix their physical imperfections to impress McMahon. Dude Love bought false teeth, and Mankind began wrestling in dress clothes to prove he could be a "corporate champion." Nevertheless, Mr. McMahon always rebuked Foley in all his manifestations. Foley's characters always pushed a comic element, trying to cheer the ailing McMahon with sock puppet "Socko" when Vince was in the hospital, playing Twister with Vince to calm him when McMahon was being stalked by arch-enemy Steve Austin, and angrily taking back the leaf-blower he had bought McMahon for Father's Day when he thought Vince was like a father to him.

Instead of rallying against Foley for being McMahon's pawn, many fans sympathized with the character and his lack of awareness of McMahon's manipulations. Thompson (1998a) wrote on his Mick Foley tribute site that "most of you will agree that Mick Foley is the hardest working man in pro wrestling. The guy has taken many of the craziest bumps in the business. Unfortunately, we may never see out hero with a major world title" (sic). This was written at a time when Foley was acting as McMahon's lackey, but fans had built up so much sympathy for Foley's various characters and so much respect for the performer that they were changing the way the storyline would play out, so that Foley would eventually become a permanent major WWE character and even champion by the beginning of the next year. At that time, Foley's character came to the realization that Mr. McMahon was manipulating him and stood against him, leading to his winning the World Heavyweight Title from McMahon's hand-chosen champion, The Rock.

Mankind, Dude Love, Cactus Jack, and aspects of Foley's personal life have all blended into one star image, Mick Foley. This short analysis of Foley's wrestling history is not meant as an authoritative look at his career but rather an identification of the key story that has created Foley as a particularly distinct contemporary hero. Like the super hero and his alter ego in comic books, Foley's personas interrelate and form one continuous character. Robert Inchausti (1983: 71) writes that with the super hero "the multiple spheres of one's existence do not impinge on one another but achieve a kind of harmonious give-and-take." This relationship among Foley's various incarnations has defined his overall character.

The growth of this overall character, Mick Foley, reveals important aspects of the way wrestling uses its multiple narrative forms to create a hero and the way that the hero is constructed by the media, the performer, and the fans. In addition, Foley's development embodies but also challenges aspects of the traditional masculine hero in American culture. Gerzon (1982: 237) writes that "emerging masculinities are unlike the old, not only in their emphasis on diversity, but because they are not based as much on tradition as on experience." Gerzon's characteristics of the new masculinities--the companion, the mediator, the colleague, and the nurturer--both coincide and conflict with more traditional roles of masculinity--the breadwinner, the expert, the father, and the husband.

These two strands are present in Foley's overall star image, as Foley is simultaneously typical and atypical. According to Oriard (1997: 394), a star such as Muhammad Ali becomes notable as a hero for his "uniqueness and his typicality." The same can be said for Foley, although his character bears no close resemblance to Ali. Mick Foley is a particularly appropriate avenue to study this ambivalent renegotiation of masculinity and the hero because of wrestling's reliance on particularly narrow definitions of masculinity to create narratives of physical struggle. Foley's characters paradoxically renegotiate those narrow definitions by both accepting and rejecting aspects of them. His image will illuminate some of these contradictory themes in the modern hero.