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Classic Rivalries: Cactus Jack vs. Vader

WCW was in a state of change in 1993. The heyday of the original Four Horsemen, Dusty Rhodes and other top stars was drawing to a close and it would be another year before Hulk Hogan would arrive and make Ted Turner’s promotion a true threat to WWE.

Still, there were many talented wrestlers on the roster engaged in heated rivalries, none more so than Cactus Jack and Big Van Vader. It made perfect sense that two of WCW’s hardest-hitting brawlers would eventually cross paths inside the squared circle, but the damage these two bruisers dished out during this Classic Rivalry was unimaginable. 

WCW was in a state of change in 1993. The heyday of the original Four Horsemen, Dusty Rhodes and other top stars was drawing to a close and it would be another year before Hulk Hogan would arrive and make Ted Turner’s promotion a true threat to WWE.

Still, there were many talented wrestlers on the roster engaged in heated rivalries, none more so than Cactus Jack and Big Van Vader. It made perfect sense that two of WCW’s hardest-hitting brawlers would eventually cross paths inside the squared circle, but the damage these two bruisers dished out during this Classic Rivalry was unimaginable. ( PHOTOS)

“I was a hard guy to feel sympathetic for.”

Mick Foley, then known as Cactus Jack, arrived in WCW in 1991 and immediately stamped out a place in the minds of fans. “The thing that stands out was how legitimately frightened some of the spectators were of me,” Foley told WWEClassics.com.

He gave them plenty to be afraid of as he teamed with the equally terrifying Abdullah the Butcher to make life hell for WCW’s top star, Sting. After The Stinger defeated Cactus in a thrilling Falls Count Anywhere Match at Beach Blast 1992, the fans began to see the man billed from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico in a new light.

“They understood that I was going way above and beyond the call of duty to entertain them,” Foley explained. “A lot of the things that seemed frightening now seemed kind of endearing or entertaining.”

Though he was beginning to earn the adulation of WCW fans, Cactus Jack still had a hard time making the major connection that combatants like Sting and Ricky Steamboat had. “I had taken so much punishment on TV and people had it in their mind, through constant repetition by the announcers that I loved it,” he said.  “I was a hard guy to feel really sympathetic for,” he said.

It was during a January 1993 Street Fight against Paul Orndorff that Foley’s fortunes took a turn for the best, or worst, depending on how you look at it. Throughout the match, Orndorff's manager, Harley Race, coached Jack on how to inflict more damage on his foe. Fed up, Cactus Jack laid Race out with a big right hand. When he came to, Harley called in the heavy artillery.

The 450-pound tank called Vader came to the ring and steamrolled Cactus Jack, joining "Mr. Wonderful" and Race in a vicious attack that proved to be the starting point of one of WCW’s most brutal rivalries. ( WATCH)

In reality, Foley knew Vader was the perfect foil for him, based on a previous encounter.

“We had a match. Not a high profile one, but a match on WCW Main Event,” he said. “It was like night and day. Because he’s so much bigger than me, I was able to get the sympathy [from the fans] that I was lacking.”

Cactus Jack was about to become a fan favorite, but he was going to have to do it the hard way.

“It was so brutal.”

The first bout between Cactus Jack and Big Van Vader took place on WCW’s flagship show at the time, WCW Saturday Night. On April 17, 1993, neither the fans packed into Atlanta’s Center Stage Theater nor the viewers at home could have been prepared for the carnage that was about to happen.

“It was so brutal,” Foley said of his first encounter with the monster from the Rocky Mountains.

From the opening bell, Vader pounced on Foley, throwing wild punches with his massive hands and pawing at his victim’s face, much like a bear would attack its prey. ( WATCH)

“He split the top of my eyebrow open, split me underneath my eye and broke my nose,” Foley told WWEClassics.com. “I have a small nose. It doesn’t break easily.”

And if a busted face wasn’t enough, there was also the looming presence of Harley Race. Often said to be one of the toughest men in sports-entertainment history, Vader’s manager stood on the outside, waiting to get his shots in.

“Harley Race is the master of splitting an eyebrow,” Foley explained. “He was so dejected when he saw it had already been done.”

When the brawl spilled to the arena floor, Race grabbed Jack, trying to give Vader a few more open shots. That backfired, as Cactus ducked out of the way, leaving Race to take a clothesline straight on from his charge.

Though he looked like he had been through war, Cactus Jack was able to mount enough of a counter attack to survive. He evaded a diving attack from Big Van Vader, which sent the 450-pounder crashing through a guardrail at ringside. That gave Jack the time to get back into the ring before the referee counted to 10. Cactus was declared the winner, but the battering Vader inflicted left him looking like anything but that.

The worst part? This war was just getting started.

“Everything seemed darker that day.”

One week after the vicious match, on April 24, 1993, Cactus Jack emerged to speak with Tony Schiavone on WCW Saturday Night. He addressed the previous week’s thrashing, as well as a challenge the champion had laid out for that night.

With his face covered in bandages, Jack explained to Big Van Vader how tough that task would be.

“You want to destroy Cactus Jack? Understand something and understand it very well, I’ve been trying to do the same thing for most of my 27 years and couldn’t get the job done. Neither will you. Neither will you. Bang! Bang!” ( WATCH)

Still, Foley knew that he might be in for a rougher night than the one he experienced seven days prior. “I had such an ominous feeling,” he said. “Everything seemed darker that day, even the halls at Center Stage seemed dark. I even went to the extent of writing my wife a letter in case things didn’t go so well.”

His premonitions ended up being right. The second encounter between Cactus Jack and Big Van Vader was much crueler than the first. Vader took to the air early, knocking the wind out of his foe with several of his trademark Vader Bombs. The monster then taunted Jack, slapping him and asking, “Who’s the man?”

Cactus evaded another aerial attack and saw an opportunity to take the fight to the arena floor, where he had an advantage. He clotheslined Vader over the top rope with the momentum taking them both to the floor. With the WCW Champion lying prone, Cactus Jack took a risk, climbing back up to the ring apron and then leaping into a front flip toward his opponent.

Unfortunately for him, The Mastodon moved out of the way, and he crashed into the mats at ringside. Seeing an opening to do some major damage, Race lifted up another section of the mats, exposing the cold, hard concrete. What happened next was unimaginable.

Big Van Vader grabbed Cactus Jack and lifted him high in the air over the exposed concrete and hurled him toward the arena floor. The impact of Jack’s skull hitting the ground made a sickening thud that reverberated throughout Center Stage. Schiavone and color commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura went silent as medics rushed to take care of a motionless Foley. ( WATCH)

“As soon as I hit, I thought, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad,’ ” Foley recalled. “Then it was, ‘Now I’m having trouble feeling my foot and one of my hands.’ ” He was diagnosed with a very serious concussion. When he returned to his hotel room after the hospital released him, Foley found support from an unlikely source.

“I wasn’t supposed to sleep, so Harley Race was calling to check on me,” he said. The legendary competitor was blown away by Foley’s fortitude. “He told me that I was the new Harley Race. As far as compliments go, they don’t get much bigger and better than that.”

Compliments aside, Foley was thankful he wasn’t more seriously injured. “It was the biggest, toughest, most aggressive guy in the business doing one of the most dangerous moves on concrete,” he said. “In retrospect, I’m lucky it turned out as well as it did.”

Though he would be out of action, the rivalry between Cactus Jack and Vader was far from over, but it would take a temporary detour from the serious to the foolish.

“They had taken a surreal, goofy take on a very serious situation…”

Foley used the time after the powerbomb-induced injury to have some needed surgery done. “That’s my vacation, knee surgery,” he joked.

To explain his absence, WCW created a series of vignettes based around the idea that Cactus Jack had amnesia following the powerbomb by Big Van Vader. Jack was placed in a mental institution, but had escaped somewhere in Cleveland. WCW then sent a reporter out to find him.

“I remember talking to the director after they shot the first segment, which did not involve me,” Foley recalled. “I said, ‘How’d it go?’ and he said, ‘There’s some things in there I would have done differently. Maybe you ought to just come over and watch it.’”

Foley watched the video of WCW’s intrepid reporter Catherine White interviewing patients at the institution where Cactus Jack had been. One acted eerily similar to Dustin Hoffman’s character from the movie “Rain Man.” Another seemed to be the worst Jack Nicholson impersonator in history. One eventually revealed Cactus Jack ran off to Cleveland. Foley was floored by the turn his big break was taking. “I was shocked that they had taken a surreal, goofy take on a very serious situation.”

Still, Foley went along with the plan, where the amnesiac Cactus Jack would be found in a homeless community.

“I went so far as to shave my eyebrows and shave completely to create an alternate look,” Foley told WWEClassics.com. “It’s tough for a guy to create a homeless look when you’ve had long hair and a beard for your entire tenure with the company.”

By the time Cactus Jack was “discovered” in Cleveland, WCW decided to pull the plug on the amnesia story, to Foley’s relief. When he got ready to come back, he discovered these vignettes really didn’t resonate with the fans.

“I think people just kind of willingly or subconsciously separated them from the rivalry.”

And when he returned to WCW, Cactus Jack’s next bout with Vader would erase any trace of the ridiculous clips from the fans' minds.

“I was wrestling that match like it was my last ever.”

Cactus Jack made his return to WCW at Clash of the Champions on August 18, 1993. If Foley had any trepidation about his return, his nerves were eased when one of the most infamous gaffes in sports-entertainment history occurred earlier that night.

“I was in my dressing room when I saw The Shockmaster fall,” he recalled. “It took me about 10 minutes to fully appreciate what I’d just seen and I burst out laughing by myself. It broke the tension and I was able to refocus.”

His return set up a bout at Halloween Havoc that October. The stipulation would be decided by a spin of a wheel. When the monster from the Rocky Mountains took his spin, the ominous wheel landed on Texas Death Match, ensuring this encounter would be extra vicious.

Contested under rules similar to that of a Last Man Standing Match, the ultimate goal of the bout was to incapacitate your opponent to the point where he could not answer the official’s 10-count. This gave the hulking Vader and the unstable Cactus Jack plenty of opportunity to dish out damage.

Behind the scenes, though, Foley was considering what his next step in sports-entertainment would be, if he even decided to continue his in-ring career.

“This was my first main event as a good guy and I had reason to believe it would be my last,” Foley explained. “I didn’t think I was being portrayed as being very important leading into that match.”

Despite his misgivings about his career, Foley went all-out against Vader. The two clobbered each other with everything they had as they brawled throughout New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena. Still, the feeling that this was it crept into Foley’s mind.

“I remember thinking vividly, ‘This is the peak of my career and I’m never going to get this high again.’ I was wrestling that match like it was my last ever.” ( WATCH)

The high point of the match came when Cactus Jack was on the humongous back of Big Van Vader on the entrance ramp.  The Mastodon takes a few steps, then surprisingly leaps backwards, crushing Jack between his massive frame and the ramp.  “I really thought it was going to be the last move I ever did in wrestling,” Foley revealed. “I thought I would collect on the Lloyd's of London policy that would kick in after a 450-pound man sandwiched me.”

Following a DDT onto a steel chair and a cattle prod shock from Race, Cactus Jack was unable to answer the 10 count. Vader emerged victorious from one of the most brutal bouts in history.

And though Foley felt like it was the end of his career, he could not have been more wrong.

“There was so much potential left on the table.”

The Halloween Havoc melee with Vader was obviously not Mick Foley’s final foray inside the squared circle. He went on to become a decorated champion in WWE, holding multiple championships, including the WWE Title.

WWE fans fondly remember his dust-ups with Superstars like The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker and Triple H rather than his encounters with mammoths like Vader. Foley has an explanation for that.

“There really wasn’t any closure,” he said. “I can honestly say the rivalries I had [in WWE] all lived up to their potential. I’m very proud of what Vader and I did in the ring together, but there was so much potential left on the table.”

Still, Foley recognized that his epic encounters with the titan were a very important milestone in his career. “It was a different rivalry in the sense that he was such a commanding, dominant figure and a monster in ways that the WWE Superstars were not,” he explained.

“They were amazing wrestlers, athletes and performers, but there was never the sense that you were going up against a monster,” he continued. “I think the Vader matches were ahead of their time in terms of physicality and brutality. [They] helped cement my reputation as a very physical performer.”

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