Becoming a heretic and a hypocrite in the process, Cactus Jack denounced hardcore wrestling during his 1995 feud with Tommy Dreamer. And to the Extreme Championship Wrestling fans, for whom hyper-violent wrestling was akin to a religious experience, he was now deserving of scorn, of excommunication. He was Henry VIII in a sleeveless shirt.
Mick Foley’s “The Problem with Hardcore” promo is some of his finest work—brilliantly conceived; brilliantly executed. It’s a display of the poetic and engrossing power of the verbal side of the wrestling medium.
It was the summer of ‘95, before Foley jumped to WWE and became Mankind.
The bruiser was one of the more famous faces on the ECW roster having been a prominent foil for stars like Vader and Sting at WCW. The Hardcore Legend had partnered with Raven and was now in the midst of a rivalry with ECW’s everyman hero-in-the-making Tommy Dreamer.
As much as Cactus was feuding with Dreamer, though, he was feuding with the fans and the ECW ethos itself. ECW, the cult favorite promotion out of Philly, was rugged, a gritty alternative to WWE’s often cartoonish and melodramatic brand of wrestling. ECW was stripped down. It was irreverence and profanity, blood, and barbed wire.
Foley, as Cactus Jack, was the perfect fit for this place. He had made his name on risk, on self-ruin, on upping the danger. His severed ear, his willingness to fling his body upon concrete, the blood he shed in Japan in the name of entertainment, all contributed to his growing legend.
But in 1995, he turned his back on that life. He betrayed Dreamer in a tag match, hitting him with a DDT on the cement. Dreamer now bore a metaphoric knife in his back and Cactus Jack believed himself to be enlightened and reformed.
In a September interview on ECW TV, he addressed his new enemy. “What is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?” he asked Dreamer.
As Cactus spoke, he revealed his twisted perception of his relationship with the Yonkers native. Yes, he was his foe, but he wanted to protect and warn Dreamer off the blight of hardcore wrestling. Their fight wasn’t about wins and losses; it was about the direction of Dreamer’s soul.
Cactus delivered an ominous history lesson about the hardcore style, one that detailed the poverty and anguish that comes with it.
He talked of Ray Stevens’ desperate need for a new heart. He bemoaned the fans’ desire to see Eddie Gilbert’s bloodshed. He reminded us of how broken Dynamite Kid’s body was and how it got that way.
“Sorry that you don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out,” Cactus said of Dynamite Kid.
Mr. Bang Bang curled his hand toward the camera, as if to reach out to us, to guide our lost souls. He was an evangelist out there, convinced of the ECW faithful’s damnation.
“We give of our selves, of our body, of heart and of our souls. And for each one of that gives, there’s bloodthirsty, low-life fans out there only willing to take” he went on with hurt and rage in his voice.
While his words were meant to antagonize, he wasn’t lying about the giving part. All those stories of guys like Dynamite Kid were true. Wrestling is in fact an art form where you create using your own suffering.
His refusal to be a part of this, and the way he looked down upon what brought him fame was an affront to his and ECW’s loyal fanbase.
This was a fresh and innovative way to irk the audience. It was masterful puppeteering. Terry Funk wrote of this stretch of storytelling in More Than Just Hardcore: “He knew exactly what they wanted to see and made himself a heel by actively refusing to give it to them!”
The raw presentation that was ECW’s trademark only served to amplify the power of this scene. This was no glossy interview by an actor. The lighting was cheap and the backdrop but a simple ECW banner with no backstage interview, nary a bell nor whistle in sight. It felt like the audience was peeking in on something they shouldn’t be, opening the blinds and peering at a man bearing his inner self.
Cactus’ anti-hardcore promos proved to be a catalyst, a foundation for the deeper, unforgettable character he would become in later years, where the real Foley fused with his wrestling personas so tightly you struggled to distinguish the two parts.
This period was some of his best work, the Cane Dewey promo the most famous of the bunch. In his book, Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW, Scott E. Williams called them “some of the most intense original promos seen in wrestling.”
In all of these, as with “The Problem with Hardcore”, Cactus reveals a disturbed moral code he now lived by. In his mind, he is not out to destroy Dreamer but to save him. And he believes all this violence born from his hands is driven by compassion, as disturbing as that is.
“To do what I did for you in the ECW arena and DDT you on the floor just proves to me how much love I really have in my heart,” he said near the close of this great performance.
Cactus wants you to ignore his fangs and see him as a shepherd. But no amount of charisma is convincing enough in this case. We watch with great attention, not because we accept his message, but out of morbid curiosity to what darkness this messiah will travel to, dragging Dreamer, ECW and everyone watching into a shadowy abyss with him.