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When We Were Marks:
For Want of a Fork 
March 13, 2003

by Llakor, That Lousy Canuck 
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com/Former Contributor to SlashWrestling.com


Peace, Puroresu Purists. With WrestleMania mania in full swing, I felt it only right that, after a long hiatus, I dust off my wrestling columnist's gear and enter the fray again. For those who have never heard of me, and your numbers are legion, I am your self-proclaimed Guardian of Useless Knowledge. As an old school wrestling fan with just enough knowledge of the history of our so-called sport to be dangerous, my singular talent, when it comes to writing wrestling opinion columns, is the ability to extrapolate logical mountains from molehill factoids.

So join me again, or for the very first time, won't you, as I warm up this treadmill that I was able to borrow from a Mr. Wallace West from Central City. It used to belong to his uncle, and supposedly if you can get the treadmill going fast enough, you can go forwards or backwards in time. I seriously doubt that I will be able to get any serious speed on this treadmill, but hopefully there is just enough of a charge left in it to take us back a very few short years, to a time when men were men and THE MAN was still the *WHOO* NATURE BOY; a time when the WCW was clobbering the (W)WWF on a weekly basis, and the best solution that the (W)WWF brain trust could come up with was to hire one of, if not the most recognizeable hardcore wrestler in the world and then put a mask on him; a time when pieman was still calzone lad; a time when Mrs. Foley's baby boy was about to participate in the, up to then, most important match of his wrestling life; a time, in short, When We Were Marks.

It sometimes happens, very rarely, that a wrestler's entire career can be analyzed through the prism of one indelible image. A moment, captured like a moth under glass, frozen like a mammoth in a glacier, that resonates down through the ages, revealing not a wrestler's move-set; not his finisher; not his gimmick; not his angle, but his character. "A man’s character is his fate," says Heraclitus. If we can just glimpse the character of a wrestler, we can understand his matches, his career, his life, more deeply than we could by any study of his moves, his results, his titles.

Take as an example, Stone Cold Steve Austin's blood-streaked face at WrestleMania XIII. Austin struggles to remain conscious, undone by his adversary's technical superiority. Yet, even caged in Bret Hart's sharpshooter, Austin remains, to the last, defiant. There is no question that Austin is in a great deal of pain, but it is his attitude to that pain that is the key to understanding Austin's character. He will not be overcome by this pain; it will not be his master; he refuses to surrender to it. In his defiance, he seems to declare that this pain is temporary, that it can be endured. What cannot be endured is becoming a victim; succumbing to the pain; yielding to it; surrendering to it. The pain of Bret Hart's sharpshooter is temporary, but submitting to it; losing to Bret; being defeated by the pain, that would be a permanent shame that Austin could not endure. Bret is able to defeat Stone Cold Steve Austin's skill; he is even able to vanquish Austin's body, but Bret is never able to defeat Stone Cold Steve Austin's mind. In the end, Austin's mind, his ego, triumphs over the frailties of even his own body.

Which is not to say that every minute, every move of every match of Austin's career can be explained by this one isolated incident. Merely, that the key to his character can be found in it, and once you understand Austin's character, all of his matches, even to a certain extent all of his moves make sense in the greater context of his character. Austin's success is built on the fundamental refusal of his ego to be restrained by the bounds of his skill and the limitations of his strength.

As a further example, consider Austin's heel run when he began to realize that his skill and strength, even assisted by his enormous ego, were no longer enough to achieve victory. His ego refused to relinquish the (W)WWF championship belt that he had suffered so much to possess. One has only to to see Austin gazing in desperate madness at his title belt before his singles match with Chris Benoit, to recognize that same desperate refusal to yield that marked his match with Bret Hart. The difference, the distinction is that this time Austin's defiance is clouded by fear. For perhaps the first time in his career, Austin fears that his ego alone will not be able to overcome the weaknesses of his skill, the frailties of his body.

Similarly, another wrestler whose character can be summarized by one unforgettable image is Mick Foley, Dude Love, Cactus Jack, Mankind. The moment in time in question, the picture frozen on the mind's eye of thousands of true wrestling aficionados, comes during the Mind Games PPV: Mankind's match against Shawn Michaels for the (W)WWF Title. Here for the first time in Shawn Michaels' title reign, the Heartbreak Kid was confronted by an opponent that he did not know how to beat. Shawn Michaels' strengths in the ring were his speed, his skill and his ability to absorb damage, but in Mankind he had an opponent who could neutralize all his advantages. Mankind was not fast, but he was fast enough to neutralize Shawn Michaels' speed; he was not Bret Hart, but he was skilled enough to cancel out Shawn Michaels' skill; and, most importantly, Mankind was able to both dish out and absorb enough damage to give even a human rubber ball like Shawn Michaels cause to pause.

An argument could be made that Mankind was destined to win this match. He appeared in total control until, in a very innocent sequence, Shawn Michaels suplexed Mankind on the outside, in the process jamming Mankind's leg on the steel steps. Just that quickly, the match turned on a dime, becoming a psychological confrontation with HBK targetting Mankind's wounded leg. As the late Mr. Perfect points out in the commentary of the match, attacking a wounded opponent in this way is a side of Shawn Michaels that we had not seen to this point in his championship reign. It is a sign of Shawn Michaels' inability to deal with Mankind's challenge that he leaps on this opportunity so quickly and with so much ferocity. It's also worth pointing out how well laid out the match is. The psychology of Mankind's leg injury is introduced so naturally, almost accidentally, that Shawn Michaels' reaction to the injury appears to be a desperate improvisation rather than a planned story. This heightens the suspension of disbelief essential for a great wrestling match. In addition, because of the way that the injury is introduced to the match, a (W)WWF audience unfamiliar with this kind of match story-telling is dragged into the drama of the match.

Paralyzed by Shawn Michaels' increasingly vicious attack on his injured leg, Mankind finally flattens Shawn Michaels, giving him enough breathing room to try and restore circulation to his increasingly numb legs. Rolling out of the ring, Mankind begs for help from his manager Paul Bearer and grabs from Uncle Paul an instrument of last resort: a fork with which he begins stabbing his leg to restore some feeling to his battered leg.

Exactly what does this tell us about Mankind and about Mick Foley? First, we understand that Mick Foley is prepared to sacrifice to achieve his goals. If he must harm himself in order to beat his opponent, win the match, gain the (W)WWF title, then so be it. The Snuka Splash from the top of his garage and later from the top of a cage, the Cactus Elbow, the Hangman, even the Hell in the Cell can all be seen as logical extensions of Mick Foley stabbing his own leg with a fork in order to win a match. His teeth, his ear, his leg, Mick is prepared to sacrifice them all.

Next, it demonstrates Mick Foley's commitment to his craft, his passion for his art. He is willing to inflict harm on himself in order to tell a better story in the ring. All wrestlers are committed to doing this to a certain extent, but most wrestler's have a boundary, a threshold, beyond which they will not go. Surely, the act of publicly stabbing yourself with a fork establishes that for Mick Foley, these boundaries are expanded if not completely ignored?

Certainly, it is no accident that the back cover of Mick Foley's first book, "Have A Nice Day" lists the injuries that Mick has incurred in the ring. Nor is it a coincidence that this is a deliberate echo of an earlier poster for Jackie Chan. (For Rumble in the Bronx, if memory serves.) In both cases, the implication is clear. Jackie's poster and Mick's back cover both proclaim: "You may consider me a clown, but I consider what I do to be a story-telling art-form. In the pursuit of that art, and in the conquest of your disbelief, I am prepared to go to almost any lengths, regardless of the personal cost to me or my body." To put it another way, Mick isn't stabbing his leg for the sake of stabbing his leg. He is doing it to further the story of the match.

In the end, Mick Foley stabbing his own leg with a fork tells us one critical fact: Mick Foley REMEMBERS. Here is Mick Foley, totally unrecognizeable from his old Cactus Jack character, his trademark smile and his disfigured ear concealed beneath a leather mask. When he brandishes a fork, the unmistakeable symbol of his old tag-team partner Abdullah the Butcher, Mick Foley is calling out to his old tag-team partner. In the process, Mick is making a commitment to his older fans never to forget his own history. This reverence for memory informs the rest of Mick's career in the (W)WWF and to a certain extent predicts his later memoir.

Looking at Mick Foley's legacy, we must recognize Mick's sacrifice, his art and his memory. It is the combination of these three factors that led to his greatest matches. His sacrifice; his willingness to put his body on the line, his art; his ability to tell a story in the ring, and his memory; his capacity to remember and make others remember. All of those elements of Mick’s character are contained in that one moment at Mind Games where he stabs his own leg with a fork to give himself a better chance to beat Shawn Michaels, win the match and become the next (W)WWF champion. That this was, on this night, a doomed quest, just shows the depth of Mick Foley’s character, the unlimited boundaries of his sacrifice, the genius of his art, and the depths of his memory.


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