In college, I remember my friend Adam being totally obsessed with pro wrestling. This was the era of The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Triple H, and a chubby weirdo named Mankind. I remember Adam explaining to me how complex and interesting WWE (formerly WWF) was, how there were these really elaborate story lines, how it was sort of like an ongoing soap opera for men. I still wasn't convinced.
But today I watched a documentary about retired wrestler Mick Foley with the audacious title "For All Mankind: The Life and Career of Mick Foley." I've gained a newfound respect, not just for pro wrestling as a legitimate cultural thing, but for this one particular wrestler, Mick Foley, who looks and dresses like a random guy you'd see in any Wal-Mart in America. If there was ever an "Everyman" of American sports entertainment, I think it would be Mick Foley, aka Mankind, aka Dude Love, aka Cactus Jack.
The most extraordinary thing about Mick Foley is that he looks so damn ordinary. He's kind of overweight, not that tall, wears really basic clothing (usually sweatpants), and he's not attractive. He is like the polar opposite of what you think of when you think "professional wrestler." This is what a professional wrestler "should" look like:
And this is what Mick Foley looks like:
He never takes his shirt off, probably because he's kind of fat and has a normal, middle-aged man's body. And yet, he wrestled such superstars as The Undertaker, Triple H, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and The Rock. At one point, he was the WWE champion! WTF?!
Over the course of his career, Mick Foley has taken on a few different "personas." At first, when he was wrestling with the less prestigious WCW, he was known as "Cactus Jack," a slightly insane person, willing to punish his body in ways other wrestlers wouldn't. It was as Cactus Jack that Foley had his ear literally ripped off, by his arch nemesis Vader.
It was losing the ear that ultimately got the attention of the more popular WWE, which Foley joined in the early 90s as the character Mankind, a kind of Hannibal-Lecter style madman who was actually pretty scary, but was also fond of his sock puppet, Socko.
Mankind was supposed to be a "villain" in the WWE storyline. But over time, as he gave interviews in character, he basically told his real life story, and people began to sympathize with him, even to see him as a kind of more relatable anti-hero. The average joe watching WWE could never be a chiseled muscleman, but he could be an enraged everyman, which Foley/Mankind was. Over the course of the film, you get the sense that Foley is a very intelligent guy who understands good storytelling, and was able to project his real-life struggles and frustrations into his TV persona, and people ate it up.
Mankind became so popular that he got top billing at Wrestlemania and other big-ticket WWE events. He became so popular that Mick Foley began to experiment with other wrestling personas, one of which was the character he created for himself in high school, a groovy party animal named "Dude Love."
What I find so charming about "Dude Love" is the blatant self-parody and whimsy. I live in a world where UFC seems to have eclipsed WWE as the preferred entertainment for men, and I find no trace of irony or humor in UFC. It is cold and hyper-masculine. On the other hand, you have Dude Love, who likes to party and wear tie-dyed headbands. Now this is the kind of fighter I want to watch, not some super-serious MMA dude.
At one point, WWE collaborated with a book publisher to experiment with "pro wrestler autobiographies." They hired a ghost writer to work with Foley, never thinking for a moment that a pro wrester could write his own book. But Foley again defied expectations, by writing the New York Times best-selling memoir Have a Nice Day: a Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. He wrote over 700 pages, by hand, in spiral notebooks. He could now be introduced at events as "WWE Champion" and "Best-selling Author."
Foley is now retired, and divides his time between his family, his philanthropic work, writing, and stand-up comedy. He is an ordinary man who, through hard work and creativity, carved out an extraordinary life for himself.
I don't think the kind of life Mick Foley led would be possible in the world of "Ultimate Fighting," which I find to be one of more depressing aspects of our popular culture. I say, if we must have fighters, let them be as creative and self-aware as Mick Foley.