Not long into his early days on Monday Night Raw -- known then as Raw is War -- the newly created character of Mankind began to lift his mask over his long, wild locks and onto his head during backstage promos. Mankind was the latest gimmick in a collection of Mick Foley personas, and the initial vision was to forge a freakish, if not faceless, mystique whom fans would fear. But Foley couldn't take it anymore. That mask ...
"It stunk," Foley said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "It got smellier and smellier the more I wore it, and it became too much."
Foley had no choice but to ditch the veiled look of Mankind on occasion, showcase his mug and expose his whimsical side. Initially, it would have appeared to diminish the secretive aura he and the creative team were trying to portray, but that wasn't the case.
On a high-profile platform like Raw, unmasking and identifying with his audience became one of the most important fallouts of his career. People wanted to relate Mankind the person, not the cryptic, creepy creature his character was originally supposed to depict.
Foley concedes he is a little deranged, but he's also a self-proclaimed nerd. It was important for him that the "real Mick" not get buried in whatever character he was playing. Jim Ross, the lead talent recruiter responsible for bringing Foley to WWE, and ultimately Raw, in 1996, saw that immediately.
"He didn't have a five-star physique," Ross told ESPN.com. "He was no Brock Lesnar, and he sure wasn't The Rock. But Mick had determination and heart. In the beginning, I saw someone who could be a unique heel because he went against the mold of what we thought wrestlers were supposed to look like."
Foley played the villain role as well as anyone could have expected, but at heart, it did not feel right for someone, who, as Ross says, "is too damn nice." Ultimately, Foley was given leeway to transition into a more amicable, relatable character. The fans responded.
Just days before the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw, Foley reflects on the importance of that development. He became one of the iconic figures of a show that prides itself on being the longest-running episodic program today. Foley said he is grateful to be part of such a storied piece of wrestling history.
"It was really something to entertain millions of people in countries all over the world," Foley said. "A huge honor."
But Foley will be the first to tell you his lengthy run in the WWE, which started three years after the debut of Raw, wouldn't have amounted to much if not for one of his earliest rivalries with The Undertaker. "You and I wouldn't even be having this conversation if not for him," Foley said.
At the time, The Undertaker was forced into matches against opponents with a similar build -- tall, able-bodied foes who could challenge him physically.
Foley was different.
The idea was to have him get inside the head of this near insurmountable beast. While their Hell in a Cell match in June 1998 will go down as one of the most seminal matches in the history of this business, it was clear two days later on Raw, when they met again, that fans had a newfound appreciation for the lengths Foley would go to in an effort to entertain.
"Mick was a different breed of cat," Ross said. "Pairing him up with The Undertaker -- it's hard to put into words what that did for his career. For their careers."
Today, Foley is on a three-month tour to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of their Hell in a Cell match, which is iconic for obvious reasons, but also because it showed Foley he was a sought-after performer whose vision for what he wanted to accomplish was finally paying off.
"I proved I could run with the big dogs," Foley said. "My career was never the same."
Foley is still amazed at all the faces he played, and credits his time on Raw in front of a dedicated audience for buying into each. Aside from his three main personas -- Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love -- he has been a commissioner, a GM and half of the great Rock 'N' Sock connection that held the tag-team titles on three occasions. Whatever the manifestation of his character at the time, the common denominator was someone who was driven by not just a deranged, sadistic soul, but someone ready to tackle any storyline thrown his way.
Before he paired up with The Rock, Foley (who was Mankind at the time) began a beef with the self-proclaimed People's Champ. They were beauty-and-the-beast polar opposites. Foley sported that freaky (and as we learned, foul-smelling) leather mask, but somehow managed to illuminate an entire arena. The Rock was pompous and arrogant. But he had abs. They duked it out a lot during a two-year period in 1998 and 1999, with many of those matches on Raw. It was a rivalry that made Foley perhaps the most unusual babyface the business had seen at the time.
"If you were an uninitiated viewer and tuning in, you'd say, 'So wait a minute, the ugly guy with the mask and tattered shirt ... he's a good guy? And this other guy who looks like he's carved out of marble, he's the bad guy?'" Foley said. "But it worked. We played off each other."
According to Ross, Foley didn't need to work hard to sell any of his three characters. Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love were immensely popular. At times, Foley wasn't even sure which one he'd come down to the ring as that day, so all three would make appearances at a given show.
So who'd win a triple-threat between them anyway?
"Dude hides under the ring and waits for the other two to wear themselves out, then takes advantage," Foley mused.
But the beauty of Foley is that it didn't matter who he played. He understood the nuances of his personas -- whether it was evil, happy, nerdy or even deranged. Or just a guy pining for pain.
"Well, maybe not pain," he said. "Take it from a guy coming off knee and hip replacements. It's not very fun. But it hurts less in front of a camera."