Few performers in the history of professional wrestling could take a “bump” like Mick Foley, who became known as the “Hardcore Legend” for his willingness to get beaten with metal chairs, impaled with sharp objects and subjected to other brutalities that would make most of his fearsome-looking colleagues run for safety.
But Foley proved far more than a hefty brute with an unusually high pain threshold, as he also pushed the limits for how a wrestler could engage with fans by portraying several different characters to great effect over the course of his Hall of Fame career.
Here’s a look at the wrestling icon’s most prominent ring personas:
Mick Foley as Cactus Jack
Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images
Following his uneven early years in the business, Foley found his footing in the latter half of the 1980s in what became his longest-running and arguably most popular character. This iteration of Cactus Jack wasn’t yet a fleshed-out creation, but after a stint as Cactus Jack Manson, in which he played off the serial-killer vibe of notorious cult leader Charles Manson, Foley funneled some of the creepier elements into the sadist who turbocharged the World Championship Wrestling and Eastern Championship Wrestling promotions in the 1990s.
Along with his signature “Bang bang!” catchphrase, Cactus Jack became known for wielding barbed-wire bats in his increasingly bloody appearances, seemingly reaching the limit when a botched maneuver vs. Big Van Vader in Munich, Germany, resulted in his right ear being torn off. But the incident did little to dampen Foley’s taste for violence, and he found the ideal showcase for his talents by surviving the beating, burning and bludgeoning featured at IWA Japan’s “King of the Death Match” tournament in 1995.
Although he seemingly left Cactus Jack behind after moving to WWE shortly afterward, Foley later donned the old “Wanted: Dead” t-shirt and slipped back into the character when pushed to the breaking point by overzealous opponents, including Triple H in 2000 and Randy Orton in 2004.
Mick Foley as Mankind
Foley’s shot at the big stage of WWE came with the mandate that he assume the new persona of a masked character. He eventually embraced the challenge to become the distinct and disturbing figure of Mankind, a tormented soul who lived in a boiler room, confided in his pet rat, George, and delivered the throat-stuffing move known as the “Mandible Claw.”
This characterization made Mankind the perfect opponent for the Undertaker, a giant who also trafficked in the dark side of human nature, and both enjoyed the boost provided by their “Boiler Room Brawl” and “Buried Alive” matches, though Foley again seemingly went too far when his body was nearly broken by the falls sustained at their 1998 “Hell in a Cell” showdown.
The wrestler bounced back with a reinvented version of Mankind, this one a more likable lug who carried around a sock puppet named Mr. Socko. His matches were still marked by grotesque moments – the Mandible Claw was now administered with Mr. Socko on his hand – but Mankind surprisingly became a fan favorite on par with top draws like Shawn Michaels and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. He began his off-and-on-again run as WWE champion by defeating The Rock in December 1998, and soon joined his fellow WWE Hall of Famer to form the successful Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection.
Mick Foley in 2019 wearing a tie-dye shirt like his character, Dude Love
Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images
The least-used of Foley’s major character creations also happened to be his first. The gregarious, happy-go-lucky Dude Love was spawned back when an underage Foley was still horsing around in backyard wrestling videos with his buddies, the legend captured in a film short from 1985 called The Loved One. The WWE version of Dude Love surfaced a dozen years later, following a series of promotional interviews in which an anguished Mankind revealed his dashed childhood dreams, and the emergence of the dancing, goofy hippie gave the wrestler another platform to showcase his unique theatrical chops.
While Dude Love’s run was short-lived, the character provided a fun counterbalance to the no-nonsense intensity of Austin for several memorable matches and ultimately aided Foley’s ascent to the top of the WWE pecking order.
Mick Foley wrestling as himself in 2004
Finally, after years of absorbing painful bumps and brutal beatings in other guises, Foley had garnered enough artistic freedom and audience goodwill to perform under his real name in the 2000s. In one sense, Mick Foley the wrestler simply brought his previous characters together beneath the ring garb of an everyman flannel shirt. This was best exemplified by his WrestleMania 22 match against Edge, in which the Hardcore Legend brandished one of Mankind’s socks wrapped in the barbed wire favored by Cactus Jack.
But the promotion of the Foley name also enabled him to make the successful transition to elder statesman and authority figure as WWE commissioner, broadcaster and RAW general manager, an incarnation that kept the popular champion in the spotlight even after his oft-battered body signaled that it was time to ease off the body-slams.