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When Cactus Jack departed WCW in 1994, the time perhaps represented a cross-roads in the career of the then 30-year-old. His size and bodyshape was something that very easily could’ve been mishandled had he have immediately sought out Vince McMahon and the WWF. Fortunately commitments in Japan gave him some choices and an emerging promotion in Philadelphia gave him a place to find his groove once again. By the time he’d left nearly two years later, he departed for the WWF as captivating as ever and with a catalogue of promo work that could genuinely stand up to anyone in history.
Foley’s latter run in WCW was an odd one. When the project started he was in the middle of those infamous amnesia angles, having being powerbombed onto the floor by Vader (the bump was very real, but the amnesia was fake). The storyline they produced would probably leave Mick Foley wishing he’d had amnesia so he could forget the entire thing, but the overriding point was the angle was a main event angle. Foley returned as was plugged back in to a main event program with Vader towards the back end of 1993.
It would be overly-simplistic to say Cactus Jack’s demise in WCW was as a result of the arrival of Hulk Hogan. 1994 heralded a change in direction for the company – originally one that was actually meant to crown Sid Vicious as the top dog. Instead, after a fight with Vader in Blackburn, Sid was fired and Ric Flair was the man chosen to lead the company into 1994. Flair gave Vader his rematch, then turned his sights to Ricky Steamboat before essentially laying the paving for Hulk Hogan’s arrival. Jack was pushed aside as others were prioritized, but his set of matches against The Nasty Boys were a highlight across the board in 1994, a series of tag team matches that offered a preview of the style of what was to come 3-4 years later.
Jack had actually already started appearing in ECW before his departure. The famous promo when he threw down the WCW Tag Team Title belt actually came nearly four months before his WCW exit. It's not clear what gave him scope to work both at the same time (most talent exchanges from that year were part of other business deals). Jack threw down the WCW title, bemoaning the "titles" he deemed more important (like "Most extreme wrestler"). People within WCW who heard about the promo without actually seeing it weren't happy.
But his WCW departure lead more to two things. Firstly would've been his salary; WCW were shuffling numbers around trying to accommodate not only Hulk Hogan, but also the raft of people that seemingly came on board as a result of his arrival: namely Jimmy Hart, Earthquake and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. Struggles in levelling their wage salary would force (in one way or another)the departures of Dustin Rhodes, Barry Darsow, Steve Austin and others in the coming 18 months.
The other thing that worked against Foley was his in ring style. The wrestling world was changing, but in 1994 it was actually regressing into a safer style. Both companies were cutting back due to political pressure surrounding violence on television. Foley often seemed to be a danger to himself: in his final match in WCW against Kevin Sullivan he pulled off a number of unnecessary bumps, all in the name of trying to get life out of a crowd that didn't care about the loser leaves town stipulation.
But he didn't leave WCW scot free. Earlier in the year during a tour of Germany in a match against Vader, Foley did a hangman spot in the ropes that he'd done many times before, catching the top and middle ropes around his neck in a spot that (in theory) looked pretty brutal but actually wasn't. But the ropes weretoo taut and in attempting to stop himself from being strangled Foley tore off the better part of his right ear.
One of his most famous contributions early was winning the ECW Tag Team Championship with Mikey Whipwreck. The whole thing only came about after Terry Funk no showed an event, Whipwreck had only been an active character for a few months and barely an active wrestler for longer than that. He was pitched as an underdog that got the piss beaten out of him but by hook or by crook still won. Whipwreck was chosen as Jack's stand in partner but also picked up the fall against The Public Enemy.
While perhaps his most famous program in ECW should probably be recorded as Cactus Jack vs The Fans, his on screen feuds like the bulk in ECW were many and fluid. He was used as a guy who could always be trusted to feud with the bigger names but was never relied upon to be the top guy – in part because of his Japan dates and latterly for his impending departure to the WWF (early reports of which could actually be traced back almost six months prior to when he debuted on Raw in April of 1996).
After a memorable program with The Sandman in early 1995, one which (like many in Foley's career) helped elevate Sandman to the level where a lot of ECW fans bought him as a credible challenger to the Heavyweight Championship. That triangle, that included champion Shane Douglas (who was on his own farewell tour ahead of a gig in New York), was ECW's top program in that part of the year alongside the Tommy Dreamer and Raven feud.
But memorable most was his feud with Terry Funk. The pair found a good neutral home in ECW, one where they could be shot together to provide promotion material for when Funk vs Jack was a headline show in Japan later in the year. While few of the Jack/Funk bouts in ECW made it to Hardcore TV, we did at least get to watch two of the best in the business bring some fire with a fantastic set of promos.
The pay off to all of this, of course, wasn't for a bout in front of 1,200 people in Philadelphia, it was instead for the program in Japan, one that culminated famously in the Exploding C-4 Barbed Wire Board match at the conclusion of the King Of The Deathmatch tournament. With the ring ropes replaced with barbed wire, the match was essentially set to "kill off" Funk, in a big ring explosion. After three boards exploded the ring "explosion" was such a let down the two had to use a ladder an improvise a finish. You can read more about the whole saga here.
Jack returned to ECW turning heel on the fans and Tommy Dreamer. The heel turn was inspired by a verbal agreement between Jack and the WWF, one that would see Jack eventually join the promotion but (much like the Public Enemy's departure to WCW) would enable ECW to tell a proper farewell program and wrap up the story.
The heel turn, amongst other things, enabled Jack to work a much softer style – the theory going that Jack was no longer willing to put his body on the line just for the ECW fans. Out went (some) of the violent spots, out went the apron elbow drop. In his first match after fully turning heel Jack took his opponent down in a headlock (something he rarely did as a face) and the ECW fans responded by starting a Mexican wave.
The feud with Dreamer tied in quite nicely with Dreamers program with Raven (one that, after nearly eight months, was seemingly fueled on dragging the entire ECW roster in with it). Jack's motivation as a heel was to try and convince Dreamer to go to WCW (a story fueled by what seems to be some, at best, flimsly reports of WCW's interest in Dreamer – at a time where seemingly everyone in ECW was either going to or being linked with one of the big two).
In matches against Dreamer, either singles or tags, Jack would wear these amazing shirts with cartoon drawings of Eric Bischoff and the Dungeon Of Doom on them. One memorable spot same Dreamer pull the Bischoff shirt over Cactus' face, striking "Bischoff" as a way of giving his response to the rumours. Once Jack's New York destination was common knowledge, the target changed to the WWF "Tommy – don’t make a liar of me to Uncle Vince". Jack's shirts now read "Join the New Generation".
His last few months were tied up with programs against Dreamer, former tag team partner Mikey Whipwreck and Shane Douglas – who returned to the promotion after a dire eight month spell with the WWF. In February Jack and Douglas had a fine match by the pairs standards, culminating in Douglas handcuffing Jack before hitting him with a dozen brutal unprotected chair shots to the head. If the angle sounds familiar, that's because it is – Foley as Mankind would do the same thing with The Rock three years later. The Mankind character vignettes would begin around this time in February 1996 on WWF television.
Jack's final two shows with ECW came down to a fitting farewell. Firstly, in New York, where he took on newcomer Chris Jericho in his first ECW match. The 14 minute match was at the standard that you would expect for these two with Jack, while still a heel, having his working boots on and Jericho adapting his style to mesh with it. Jack, not for the first time or the last, selflessly put over the new charge after an even encounter – immediately establishing Jericho as a piece of important furniture within ECW and setting him up for a match the following night with Taz, who was on his way to being pushed to the moon.
For Jack's final match he would face off against Mikey Whipwreck. After a whirlwind second half of 1995 – where Mikey would not only rise high enough to win ECW's "World" Heavyweight Title, but also defeat Steve Austin in the process, 1996 had seen him pushed aside somewhat, becoming reluctant two time tag champions with the now heel Jack after Mikey won the titles in a singles match over Too Cold Scorpio, Jack came out and announced he was Mikey's partner. It was the kind of shit ECW would have, quite rightly, called out WCW or the WWF on – but that's by-the-by.
The match, given Mikey's lack of experience and Jack's style, came across better than anyone could have realistically expected it to. The pair brawled around ringside and into the crowd, Jack was still working a heel but was doing a lot more than he was before, including Jack dropping an elbow drop off the apron for the first time since his turn, and Mikey hitting a big splash off of the eagles nest. Jack hit a piledriver onto the steel chair and won the match.
But it was his final moment that was perhaps the more memorable part of the weekend, signing off with a post match promo that perfectly balanced not completely breaking character yet having a fitting farewell. Jack said that after all the things he'd said, to get the kind of farewell reaction from the ECW fans was amazing, he made peace with some of the regulars in the front row before signalling out two people in the back that, without which, this wouldn't be possible. He was, of course, on about... Stevie Richards and The Blue Meanie. Richards and Meanie came out and granted Jack his wish of going out doing the Fargo strutt. You can hear the promo along with our review of the segment on the March 1996 podcast here.
Jack was leaving for pastures new, a WWF deal not only signed but also in the run – he would debut on Raw less than three weeks later. ECW, for Jack like so many others, was a place they could showcase themselves in their full, unedited form. After nearly two years as a regular character, Jack had left behind a library of promos that were likely unrivaled in the 1990s until Steve Austin blossomed in the WWF a year or so later. People remember the Cane Dewey promo, but there's a case for almost all of his promos in 1995 as being absolute gold.
In his parting promo he said that if ECW could survive without Terry Funk, then they sure as hell could survive without Cactus Jack. And he wasn't wrong – in the mits of the Monday Night War ECW was being squeezed for talent from both sides and was having to create new stars as quickly as they let them go. ECW would survive without Cactus Jack... but it'd be like surviving without a body part, and one much more significant than an ear.