Foley arrived in the WWF in 1996 with a new gimmick and perhaps his most famous personality: Mankind, a mentally deranged and schizophrenic who constantly squealed (even throughout his matches), shrieked "Mommy!", spoke to a rat named George, enjoyed pain, physically abused himself (such as by pulling out his hair), wore a mask and lived in boiler rooms; hence, his specialty match, the Boiler Room brawl. The original name that Vince McMahon had for Foley was "Manson the Mutilator", but Foley thought that Mankind would be a better name and McMahon changed it. Mankind debuted the day after WrestleMania XII, quickly moving into a feud with The Undertaker. This feud continued through King of the Ring, Mankind's WWF pay-per-view debut. During the match, Undertaker's manager, Paul Bearer, "accidentally" struck him with the urn, allowing Mankind to apply the mandible claw for the win. The two then began interfering in each other's matches until they were booked in the first ever Boiler Room brawl, in which the goal was to escape the arena's boiler room and reach the ring to take the urn from Paul Bearer.
The Undertaker appeared to have won, but Paul Bearer refused to hand him the urn, allowing Mankind to win, thus (for the time being) ending the relationship between Paul and the Undertaker. While Mankind was managed by Paul Bearer, he referred to him as "Uncle Paul." Mankind then earned the number one contendership to face the then WWF Champion Shawn Michaels at In Your House: Mind Games. Michaels won by disqualification via interference by Vader and The Undertaker. For several years, Foley considered this match his best ever, saying "Sure, at 280 pounds I still looked like hell, but after a brutal cardiovascular training regimen, I was able to go full-tilt for twenty-seven minutes with a smaller, quicker, better athlete than me."
The Mankind-Undertaker feud continued with the first ever Buried Alive match at In Your House: Buried Alive. Undertaker won the match, but Paul Bearer, Terry Gordy (as the Executioner), Mankind and other heels attacked the Undertaker and buried him alive. Afterward, he challenged Mankind to a match at Survivor Series, which he won. The feud ended after one more match at In Your House: Revenge of the Taker for the WWF Championship, which Undertaker had won at WrestleMania 13. Undertaker won the match and Bearer took a leave of absence, ending the feud.
Jim Ross then began conducting a series of interviews with Mankind. During the interviews, Ross brought up the topic of Foley's home videos and the hippie-inspired character he played in them, Dude Love. Around this time, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels won the WWF Tag Team Championships from Owen Hart and The British Bulldog, but Michaels was injured and could no longer compete. Mankind tried to replace him, but Austin said he wanted "nothing to do with a freak" and resigned himself to facing Hart and the Bulldog alone the next week. Halfway into the match, however, Foley debuted a new persona known as Dude Love who suddenly appeared and helped Austin take the victory, becoming the new Tag Team Champions. The following week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dude teamed with Austin, and Mankind's longtime nemesis, The Undertaker, to face Bret Hart, Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith, members of villainous anti-American stable, the Hart Foundation, in a USA vs. Canada Flag Match—the first match of its kind broadcast onRaw. The Hart Foundation ultimately won the match due to assistance from another Foundation member, Brian Pillman. Austin and Dude vacated their tag team titles when Austin suffered a (legitimate) serious neck injury at the hands of Owen Hart at SummerSlam. Dude Love feuded with Hunter Hearst Helmsley, as the two competed in a Falls Count Anywhere match. One of Foley's most memorable vignettes aired before the match began, in which Dude Love and Mankind discussed who should wrestle the upcoming match. Eventually, "they" decided that it should be Cactus Jack, and Foley's old character made his WWF debut. Jack won the match with a Piledriver through a table. Shortly thereafter,Extreme Championship Wrestling's Terry Funk joined the WWF as "Chainsaw Charlie." At the 1998 Royal Rumble, he participated under three personas, Cactus Jack, Mankind, and Dude Love. Charlie and Jack defeated the New Age Outlaws at WrestleMania XIV in a Dumpster match to win the tag team titles. The next night, however, Vince McMahonstripped them of the belts and scheduled a rematch in a steel cage, which the Outlaws won with help from their new allies, D-Generation X.
On April 6, 1998, Foley turned heel when Cactus Jack explained the fans would not see him anymore because they did not appreciate him and only cared about Stone Cold Steve Austin. Vince McMahon explained to Austin the next week that he would face a "mystery" opponent at Unforgiven. That opponent turned out to be Dude Love, who won the match by disqualification, meaning that Austin retained the title. McMahon, displeased with the outcome, required Foley to prove he deserved another shot at Austin's title with a number one contendership match against his former partner, Terry Funk. The match was both the WWF's first ever "Hardcore match" and the first time that Foley wrestled under his own name. Foley won, and after the match, a proud McMahon came out to Dude Love's music and presented Foley with the Dude Love costume. At Over the Edge, Dude Love took on Austin for the title. McMahon designated his subordinates Gerald Brisco and Pat Patterson as the timekeeper and ring announcer, and made himself the special referee. The Undertaker, however, came to ringside to ensure McMahon called the match fairly, and with his presence, Dude Love lost the match and was "fired" by McMahon the June 1st edition of Raw.
Hell in a Cell (1998) On that same episode of Raw, Foley then reverted to his Mankind character, who began wearing an untucked shirt with a loose necktie and feuding with The Undertaker. At King of the Ring, the two competed in the third Hell in a Cell match. In one of the most famous matches in professional wrestling history, Foley received numerous injuries and took two dangerous and highly influential bumps. The first one came as both wrestlers were brawling on top of the cell, and Undertaker threw Mankind from a height of 16 feet (4.9 m) and sent him crashing through the Spanish announcers' table. This event also triggered Jim Ross to famously shout "Good God almighty! Good God almighty! That killed him! As God as my witness, he is broken in half!", and "Good God, Good God! Will somebody stop the damn match? Enough's enough!". The match was momentarily halted so that Dr. Pettit, the WWE's resident doctor, and others including Terry Funk and Vince McMahon could rush to ringside and attend to Foley.
Moments later, as Foley was being wheeled up the entrance ramp on a stretcher, he got off and promptly made his way back to the cage, climbing to top of the cell, with the Undertaker doing likewise. With both men back on the top of the cell (albeit with some difficulty due to Foley having suffered a severely dislocated shoulder due to the fall, and the Undertaker wrestling with a broken foot that night), the Undertaker chokeslammed Mankind onto the top of the cage. A section of the cage gave way completely, resulting in Foley falling through and hitting the ring canvas below hard. The cage giving way was supposedly a surprise to both Foley and the Undertaker, when in fact it was planned beforehand (see below). The Undertaker later admitted he thought Foley was dead following the second bump.
Foley was genuinely knocked unconscious for a few moments from the impact, but was able to come around. Some time after getting up and being attended to again by the aforementioned personnel, TV cameras showed a lingering shot of Foley smiling through his profusely bleeding mouth and lips, with a loose tooth hanging beneath his nose; the tooth having been knocked loose due to being struck by the chair which had fallen through the cage with him. The match continued for a while longer, ending with Foley being chokeslammed by the Undertaker onto thumbtacks with which he had strewn the ring canvas. Although he lost, both wrestlers received a standing ovation for the match, and the event is often said to have jump-started Foley's main event career.
Many future matches attempted to replicate some of the spots from this match. In his autobiography Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks, Foley wrote that he could not remember much of what happened, and he had to watch a tape of the match to write about it. The match was voted Pro Wrestling Illustrated's Match of the Year for 1998. Although many fans regard the match as a classic, it has generated controversy as well. Critics charge that the falls in the match were so extreme and they set the bar for further bumps so high that the inevitable attempts to equal or surpass them would be very dangerous for any wrestlers involved. Additionally, in his autobiography, Terry Funk wrote that both falls, including the second one through the cage, had been planned with the cell designers, but the cell was supposed to sag rather than break open, although this statement has since been widely discredited and both spots are now accepted as being deliberate.
Foley said in his first book that his wife cried during a post match phone conversation between the two, and this made Foley strongly consider retiring from wrestling. He also said that after the match, Vince McMahon thanked him for all he had done for the company, but made Foley promise to "never do anything like that again." He also made mention in the book of a rather humorous exchange he and Undertaker had while being checked out more thoroughly by Dr. Pettit in the backstage area. Foley, still somewhat dazed from the concussion he sustained, turned to the Undertaker and asked "Did I use the thumbtacks?", which was a staple of a number of Foley's early matches. The Undertaker looked at him and rather sternly replied "Look at your arm, Mick!", at which point Foley discovered a significant number of thumbtacks still lodged in his arm.
WWF Champion and retirement (1998–2000)Main article: The Rock 'n' Sock Connection Although conventional wisdom holds that the Hell in a Cell match was responsible for Foley's rise to main event status, live television crowds did not initially get behind Mankind because of the match. Following a summer where he teamed with Kane to win the WWF Tag Team Championship on two separate occasions, Foley decided that crowds might respond better if Mankind were more of a comedy character, and so he became less of a tortured soul and more of a goofy, broken down oaf. He began the transition into this character following Summerslam in 1998, after Kane turned on him and the two lost the tag team championships.
Foley with Mr. Socko, a sock puppet Foley used in particular with his Mankind character. The following month Foley began an angle with Vince McMahon, with Mankind trying to be a friend to the hated Mr. McMahon. On a September episode of Raw, while McMahon was in a hospital nursing wounds suffered at the hands of The Undertaker and Kane, Mankind arrived to cheer him up. Having succeeded only in irritating McMahon, Mankind unveiled a sock puppet named Mr. Socko. Intended to be a one-time joke, Socko became an overnight sensation. Mankind began putting the sock on his hand before applying his finisher, the mandible claw, stuffing a smelly sock in the mouths of opposing wrestlers. The sweatsock became massively popular with the fans, mainly because it was marketed (mostly by Jerry "The King" Lawler during the events) as being a dirty, smelly, sweaty, repulsive, and vile sock.
McMahon manipulated Mankind, who saw the WWF owner as a father figure, into doing his bidding. McMahon created the Hardcore Championship and awarded it to Mankind, making him the first-ever champion of the hardcore division. Mankind was then pushed as the favorite to win the WWF Championship at Survivor Series, as McMahon appeared to be manipulating the tournament so that Mankind would win. He and The Rock both reached the finals, where McMahon turned on Mankind. As The Rock placed Mankind in the Sharpshooter, McMahon ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell even though Mankind did not submit, a reference to the Montreal Screwjob from the year before. As a result of Survivor Series, Mankind officially transitioned into a fan favorite, while The Rock became a villain and the crown jewel in McMahon's new Corporation faction.
After weeks of trying to get his hands on McMahon's new faction, the Corporation, Mankind received a title shot with The Rock at Rock Bottom: In Your House. Mankind knocked The Rock out by shoving a dirty sweatsock in the Rock's mouth, but McMahon ruled that the title would not change hands because The Rock never gave up. After several weeks of going after the Corporation, Mankind had his big night on December 29, where Mankind defeated The Rock and won his first WWF championship. The taped show was broadcast on January 4, 1999, so that is the date WWE recognizes as beginning the title run. Having title changes on broadcast television rather than pay-per-view was uncommon in professional wrestling, but because of the Monday Night Wars, TV ratings became more important. The rival WCW, attempting to take advantage of the fact that their show Monday Nitro aired live while Mankind's title victory was taped the week before, had announcer Tony Schiavone reveal the ending of the Mankind-Rock match before it aired. He then added sarcastically, "That'll put a lot of butts in the seats." The move backfired for WCW, as Nielsen ratingsshowed that Raw won the ratings battle that night, despite the Hogan vs. Nash main event which led to the reformation of the New World Order. Foley said that the ratings indicate that large numbers of viewers switched from Nitro to Raw to see him win the title and took great personal pride from this, and "Mick Foley put my ass in this seat" signs began showing up at WWF events.
Mankind first lost the WWF title to The Rock in a "I Quit" match at Royal Rumble. During the match, Foley took several bumps, including eleven unprotected chair shots. This match is featured on Barry Blaustein's documentary Beyond the Mat, which shows the impact the match had on Foley and his family at ringside. The match ended after Mankind lost consciousness and The Rock's allies played a recording of Mankind saying "I Quit" from an earlier interview. The match was also voted 1999's Match of the Year by the readers of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Mankind won the title back at a rematch on Halftime Heat, which aired during halftime at Super Bowl XXXIII, in the WWF's first ever Empty Arena match. The two then competed in a Last Man Standing match at St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which ended without a winner, meaning that Mankind retained the title. Mankind was said to have thrown out his left shoulder early in the match, but showed no signs of it and refused to stop the match. It had to be popped back into place afterward. The next night, Mr. McMahon booked a ladder match for the championship, which The Rock won with help from The Big Show. Later in the year, Foley and The Rock patched up their friendship and teamed up to form a comedy team called the Rock 'n' Sock Connection, becoming one of the most popular teams during that time. The pair won the tag team titles on three occasions. Foley helped WWF Raw achieve its highest ratings ever with a segment featuring himself (as Mankind) and The Rock. The "This is Your Life" segment aired on September 27, 1999 and received an 8.4 rating.
Foley returned from knee surgery as Mankind to win the WWF Championship for the third time at SummerSlam in a triple threat match against Steve Austin and Triple H. It is believed that Mankind was booked to win the championship that night because Austin refused to lose it to Triple H. Foley stated the reason he was booked into the match was because Austin had torn a ligament in his knee and a triple threat match would add enough intangibles to make an acceptable match without aggravating Austin's knee.Mankind's win also led to an enraged Triple H to assault Austin, justifying Austin's absence while his knee healed. Triple H defeated Mankind and won the title the next night onRaw. A major feud developed between Mankind and the McMahon-Helmsley regime, led by Triple H, which led to Mankind's reverting to his Cactus Jack persona and facing Triple H for the WWF Championship at Royal Rumble in a Street Fight. Cactus used barbed wire and thumbtacks, trademark weapons from his pre-WWF days, but Triple H won the match after delivering two pedigrees, the second onto a pile of tacks. This feud culminated with a rematch at No Way Out in a Hell in a Cell match, where stipulations held that if Cactus Jack did not win the title, Foley would retire from wrestling. Triple H won, after throwing Foley over him onto the cage. The cage gave away, snapped and Foley fell through the canvas thus ending the match, ostensibly ending Foley's career. Foley left for a few weeks but returned at the request of Linda McMahon to wrestle for the title at WrestleMania 2000 against Triple H, The Rock, and The Big Show. Triple H won, and Foley did not wrestle again for four years.
Commissioner (2000–2001) Foley in WrestleMania X-Seven Fan Axxess After retiring from active competition, Foley served as storyline WWF Commissioner under his real name rather than one of hispersonas. Foley has said that he intended for his Commissioner Foley character to be a "role model for nerds," cracking lame jokes and making no attempt to appear tough or scary. He also had a knack during this time to have no one spot for his office; rather, Mick would have an office in all sorts of odd places (for example, closets). Foley turned getting cheap pops into something of a catchphrase, as he shamelessly declared at each WWF show that he was thrilled to be "right here in (whatever city he was performing in (e.g, New York))!" punctuated with an intentionally cheesy thumbs-up gesture. During this time, Commissioner Foley engaged in rivalries with Kurt Angle, Edge and Christian, and Vince McMahon without actually wrestling them. He left the position in December 2000 after being "fired" on screen by McMahon.
Foley made a surprise return on the Monday Night Raw just prior to WrestleMania X-Seven and announced that he would be thespecial guest referee in the match between Mr. McMahon and his son Shane at WrestleMania. After WrestleMania, Foley made sporadic WWF TV appearances throughout the spring and summer, at one point introducing Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura during a taping of Raw in the state as a foil to Mr. McMahon, as well as serving as the guest referee for the Earl Hebner versus Nick Patrick Referee match at the WWF Invasion pay-per-view.
Foley returned as commissioner in October 2001, near the end of The Invasion angle. During this brief tenure, Foley had the opportunity to shoot on the WWF's direction and how dissatisfied he was with it. Saying that there were far too many championships in the company, he booked unification matches prior to the final pay-per-view of the storyline, Survivor Series. After Survivor Series, he ended his commissionership at Vince McMahon's request and left the company.