In his career with World Wrestling Entertainment, Mick Foley has been thrown from the roof of a 16-foot-high cage, where he crashed through a broadcasting booth; hit by a steel chair, which dislocated his jaw and dislodged a tooth; nailed with a removable stairwell wielded as a weapon by his opponent; and body-slammed on a bed of thumbtacks.
These made up just another day at the office for the professional wrestler known as Mankind — one specific day at the office, in fact. All of these potentially fatal injuries befell Foley in the span of just 30 minutes, in 1998's notorious "Hell in a Cell" brawl with the Undertaker. The match's signature camera angle caught Foley's demented character smiling through bloody lips, the broken tooth dangling beneath his nose. Even in the staged, heavily safeguarded world of pro wrestling, there was panic in the voice of apoplectic broadcaster Jim Ross when he shouted, "Will somebody stop the damn match?! Enough is enough!"
"One of the teeth I had knocked in half in 'Hell in a Cell' is still in half," Foley recalls from the comfort of his home, which he shares with his wife and three children. "It's taken on a bluish tint because of the damage to the roots. So while some people may claim to use a Bluetooth, I've actually got one." Cue rimshot.
These days, Foley is a more lovable, domesticated version of his schizophrenic in-ring persona, a masked marauder who enjoyed pain and spoke through a sock puppet. Since the mid-2000s, he's been retired from the business, returning for a few sporadic matches or to serve as a guest referee, and he was inducted into the WWE's Hall of Fame earlier this year. To be retired at 48 could be considered an early exit in the wrestling world, considering Hulk Hogan is still active at 59 and Ric Flair retired around 60. But not everybody could take the hits Foley welcomed.
"There's only so much punishment a human body can take," he says. "A lot of it wasn't necessarily hard-core matches... It was just a very physically demanding style. My knees became arthritic very early because of that punishing style. It would be like likening a running back who takes the hit to the running back who plays it safe and goes out of bounds at almost every occasion. It's not because of the type of matches I was in or the stipulations that surrounded them; it's because I had a style that I chose at a young age that had consequences.
"It's funny," he continues. "In my shows, I talk about the fact that I never felt like anything I was doing was particularly crazy — maybe a couple of times a year, I'd take a big risk. But I never thought I was reckless. I had a way of visualizing moves and staying away from the ones where I thought I had the best chance of getting hurt."
Foley's "shows" are a reference to his latest career turn: standup comedian/spoken-word artist. Foley's one-man show, Tales From Wrestling Past, which he'll perform at the Hollywood Improv on July 31 and the Miami Improv on August 1, is the culmination of a storied post-WWE renaissance that has included everything from four memoirs, two of which hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list; a couple of coming-of-age novels; a surreal appearance on ABC's trashy-therapeutic Celebrity Wife Swap, where he switched spouses with a soap-opera star; the occasional acting gig; and now the comedy-club circuit.
"I never expected to have such a long shelf life in my postwrestling years," he says. "The books were really a great blessing, because I realized I could tell stories on the page in addition to in the ring, and really, the stage show I do is just an extension of the written word. Once people give it a try, it makes absolute sense. It's almost like seeing your favorite musical performer in an acoustic setting, as opposed to being in a full-band setting."
And yet, even for an entertainer known for cutting, engaging wrestling promos and performing in front of millions on television, there's something naked and scary about standing in front of a brick wall, with no apparatus behind him and the prospect of crickets if he doesn't make them laugh.
"It's terrifying when you first start doing it," he says. "There's great pressure that comes with standing on a stage where your job is primarily to make people laugh. Now I realize it's to make people happy. I don't even try to compete with the great comics on a laugh-to-laugh basis. But when people leave my show, they are genuinely happy, and they consider it to be a really worthwhile experience."
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Foley claims to have no comedic influences — when he would watch his favorites, he found himself aping their styles, so he has worked hard to cultivate his own — and as the title of his show suggests, a lot of it will feature humor and suspense from his WWE days. He has promised that some of his jokes will be Floridacentric at next week's shows and that at the Hollywood show, "I'll have a friend in attendance who plays a large part in one of the stories I'll be telling."
The performances will conclude with a question-and-answer session, and while Foley's hard-core wrestling fan base constitutes a large chunk of his audience, he hopes to win over newbies for whom the word "mankind" has nothing to do with mental-ward masks and mandible-claw finishing moves.
"Usually it's a spouse or significant other tagging along in a great display of love or dedication, and they will almost always go out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed it and how they didn't know what to expect," Foley says. "One of the most important things for me is to create a nonthreatening atmosphere for a nonfan. I'm not saying they'll enjoy the evening as much as their own personal top-flight comic, but they will have much more fun than they anticipated."
And the best part for Foley about his new gig? No teeth have gone missing, at least not yet.