To Hell and back: The oral history of Foley's famous fall
Each and every day, Mick Foley hears the same question from wrestling fans around the globe: “Did it hurt going through that table?” Ever since the fateful night of June 28, 1998, The Hardcore Legend is still feeling the repercussions of being flung from the top of the Hell in a Cell by The Undertaker and plunging to the concrete below. For many spectators – both fans and those in the locker room – the visual of Mankind’s body crashing through the ringside announce table represents the height of ring brutality and still resonates today.
To discuss a moment that defined an era, WWE.com sat down with Foley, announcer Jim Ross, former referee Tim White and more of the men who experienced WWE’s most punishing match in person. What does the match mean to Mick now? What did the guys in the locker room think? And did it really hurt going through that table?
WWE.COM: When you look at that match now, do you think the moment of you going off the top of the cell defines your career? And if so, do you regret or embrace that?
MICK FOLEY: I feel kind of like Adam West in his views towards being Batman. For so many years, he fought it. Just like for so many years it really felt like I had other matches that were worth talking about that seldom got mentioned. You either go on being frustrated about it or you learn to embrace it. I had a breakthrough moment at the WWE Hall of Fame [Induction Ceremony this year], when I heard the story being told from Terry Funk’s point of view. I came to see that match in a whole new light and I came to better appreciate how much it affected people.
WWE.COM: In your book, “Have a Nice Day,” you mention that your opponent was originally supposed to be “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, not The Undertaker. How do you think the match would have been different against Austin? Would the famous fall have ever happened?
FOLEY: Who knows? It may have been a completely different match. At a certain point, [WWE officials] were almost making it a “Thunderdome”-type match like in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” where you would have different objects that would be attached to the cell. There was an idea for some sort of bungee that would allow us to propel ourselves to the top of the cell to allow us to recover the objects.
WWE.COM: Once you knew you were wrestling The Undertaker, you knew you wanted to start the match on top of the cell?
FOLEY: That was Terry Funk’s brainchild. After Terry and I watched the first Hell in a Cell match with Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, I looked at Terry and said, “What am I going to do?” I was never really a great cage match wrestler. I didn’t have the athleticism to do a lot of the climbing. I certainly didn’t have any of Shawn Michaels’ athleticism and I did not think I could live up to the standards that they had set. Terry thought about it for a while and said, “It’s going to be tough, but maybe you ought to start the match on top of the cell.” He jokingly mentioned “Hey, maybe you get thrown off and climb back up on top of the cell.” As he was laughing, I said, “I think I can do that.” I wasn’t serious, but at that point I had that seed in my mind and I had a vision of what I wanted to accomplish.
WWE.COM: Did that vision include being tossed off by your opponent?
FOLEY: In my original plan, I wanted to drop an elbow off the top of that cage. But that’s not what worked out.
WWE.COM: The mindset of Mick Foley seems to be that you were always trying to top yourself. When you took that fall, did you inadvertently create a moment that was impossible to top?
FOLEY: I think that I created a moment that was impossible to top and I think I created a moment that shouldn’t be topped. [Mr. McMahon] talked about “placing a governor on me” and then explained to me that a governor is a device that does not allow a car to exceed a certain speed. That governor needed to be placed not only on me, but on other Superstars that wanted to top me. So many of the Superstars want to give people moments that they’ll never forget, but we don’t want to give them moments that could end Superstars’ careers. Mine easily could have ended that night in Pittsburgh.
WWE.COM: J.R., did you know that something special was going to happen that night?
JIM ROSS: Not in specific terms, no. Hell in a Cell was still relatively new. It was an unpredictable match. The apparatus provided a lot of potential, both good and bad. I didn’t know that he had something specifically extraordinary in mind. But at that point it was “game day,” and that was the biggest game of Mick Foley’s career at that point.
WWE.COM: What you were thinking as Mick began climbing up to the top of Hell in a Cell?
ROSS: I had no idea what was going to happen on top of the cell. You never knew. Mick’s unpredictable and then you have this massive structure that you can utilize. All I knew was that they were going into uncharted waters and I was going to try to capture it as best as I could, as organically and as real as I could, based on what I saw on a monitor, because that’s what the viewer was seeing.
WWE.COM: Tim, as the referee, did you have any idea that the match would turn out the way it did?
TIM WHITE: I did not, but I must tell you this: Hell in a Cell is the most brutal match in professional wrestling. I was excited to referee the match, but I was also apprehensive about what could happen.
WWE.COM: Sarge, what was your role in 1998?
SGT. SLAUGHTER: I was the WWE Commissioner. When the match started, I was watching from a monitor. Mick Foley went out to the cell, grabbed a chair and started climbing up on top. Vince McMahon looks to me and says, “What’s he doing? Get on down there. Go around and keep an eye on him.” I did.
WWE.COM: Mick, what did Jim Ross’ commentary do for the mythic quality of that match?
FOLEY: When I used to visualize matches, I would think, “How would this sound with Jim Ross calling the match?” J.R. has an incredible ability to really capture a moment and say in a few words what so many people might be thinking. Those two calls: “As God is my witness, this man has been broken in half!” and “Will somebody please stop the damn match?” You put those words on paper and they don’t sound so special, but the emotion with which Jim conveys those words is timeless.
WWE.COM: J.R., when you made that famous call about Mick being “broken in half,” what was going through the mind of Jim Ross the man and not J.R. the commentator – or is there no separation between the two?
ROSS: Absolutely no separation. I said exactly what I felt. I just couldn’t fathom that a human being could survive that ordeal without being permanently damaged and in need of immediate medical help. It didn’t seem that was possible. What you heard was not a predetermined, scripted line. No one told me before the show, “Oh, by the way, Mick is going to be tossed off the top of the cell through the Spanish announce table.” What fans heard in that call is exactly what I was feeling. It was just J.R. being J.R.
WWE.COM: Those calls have really stood the test of time, almost as much as the match itself.
ROSS: My call of that match has been used on blocked shots in the NBA, slam dunks, NFL hits. People will dub my voice into a pivotal moment like a LeBron James dunk and put it on YouTube. There’s probably half a dozen that have gone viral. My call that night lives in the moments of those that experienced it and then those that have engaged it later on.
WWE.COM: Sarge, what was going through your mind when Mankind was thrown off the cell?
SLAUGHTER: My hands went up in the air and I said, “Oh my God.” I heard this thunderous crush. It was hard to explain the noise. It was kind of quiet at first. Terry Funk came down and started taking away some of the announce table off of Foley. Then I saw a few referees and Mr. McMahon came down and I thought, “This is not good.” It looked as if he had separated his left shoulder. So I said, “We’ll raise the cage so that we can get some of the medical stuff out there,” and I completely forgot Undertaker was still on top of the cage.
WWE.COM: It was your call to raise the cage?
SLAUGHTER: Yeah. We had to get the medical equipment in there and we had to get the cage up for them to get around. His shoulder was bad, so I said, “Let’s get him to the back.” We started wheeling Mick back and the cage started coming back down.
WHITE: When [The Undertaker] tossed Mankind off the top of the cell through the table, my heart was racing. I was worried about the guy. As the referee, if someone’s injured, you’ve got to stop it, no matter what. When I got over by Mick, he said, “I’m good to go,” so the match continued. My heart was racing the whole time. My heart was racing the whole time. I was like the people that were in the arena and the people watching it on pay-per-view, speechless and breathless.
WWE.COM: Mick, those in the WWE locker room seem to appreciate the second fall – the one through the roof of the cell – a bit more than the first. What made that one so much worse?
FOLEY: My vision did not include the cage breaking. I know that’s been up for debate for 16 years. The greatest blessing of that match is that it’s the only time in my entire history of matches with The Undertaker that I did not get height on the chokeslam. Had I taken a textbook choke slam, I don’t think I would be talking to you now. I would have landed on my neck or my head in the ring. And believe me, I think it would have been the end of my career. Instead, for whatever reason, I took the lamest chokeslam, but it was the one that allowed me to land on my back. It knocked me out cold, but it didn’t end my career as I believe a different type of chokeslam would have.
KANE: Everyone was holding their breath, waiting to see if Mick was okay.
JBL: We all thought Mankind was hurt bad, but we had no idea how bad. To me, the match was over once he went through the cell. We were incredulous. Absolutely incredulous.
WWE.COM: Did you feel for what Mick was going through?
JBL: If you’ve been injured a lot, like most of us have, you knew how bad he’s hurt. You know when a guy’s knocked out like that, you can’t do much. We figured the match would have to end and when it didn’t, that was pretty remarkable.
SLAUGHTER: The fall through the top of the cell was scarier. It looked like [Mick] had more control over that first fall. I saw that he was moving. I thought he was actually laughing, so I said, “Chain up the doors.” The rules of the Hell in a Cell Match are once the competitors are inside the cell, the doors are locked.
WWE.COM: Were you torn at all about making that decision?
SLAUGHTER: I did what I was supposed to do. Those were the rules. That’s what the people came to see. It’s not an “On Top of a Hell in a Cell” match. It’s a Hell in a Cell Match. It took them 10 minutes to get the damned match started inside of the cell. I think The Undertaker and Mick Foley would have cursed me for life if I stopped that match or if I would have not done everything that was supposed to be done for that match. I think they respected me for that. I think it actually gave it more impact when they put the camera on me chaining [the door]. It made me look like a bad guy, but that was my job. I wanted to do the way it was supposed to be.
WWE.COM: Did The Undertaker say anything to you?
SLAUGHTER: The Undertaker was stunned by what was going on. Nobody’s out there to try to cripple anybody, but his hands were on Mick Foley when he went off of the cage and when he went through the cage. He kept on making sure that Mick was okay. I’d hear his voice every once in a while, “Are we continuing? Are we continuing?” I’d give him a look and I wouldn’t have to say yes or no. He would just see it in my eyes.
WWE.COM: Tim, what did you do when Mick fell through the roof of the cell?
WHITE: When The Undertaker got back into the ring, he looked very, very concerned and he said, "Go see if he’s breathing."
WWE.COM: At one point, Mick said something to you about the tacks, right?
WHITE: Yes, he said to me, “Get the tacks.” And later, when I counted the one, two, three, it took about an hour to get all the thumbtacks out of my arm. Let me just say this, I was so relieved when it was over.
WWE.COM: Mick, did you know you wanted to use the thumbtacks after the fall?
FOLEY: I had planned to use them at some point, yeah. I don’t think they had even been used in the U.S. before. If so, maybe on one other occasion. It’s not something you usually keep under the ring – a bag of 10,000 tacks.
WWE.COM: What were some of the conversations you had after the match backstage?
FOLEY: Following the match, Mr. McMahon came up to me and said, “You have no idea how much I appreciate what you’ve just done for this company, but I never want to see anything like that again.” Referee Mike Chioda told me that a stretcher was coming to get me after the match. I asked him if I had already been on a stretcher that night. When he said, “Yes,” I told him that I couldn’t be on two stretchers in one evening. I don’t know where I got that edict from. I don’t remember my dad sitting me down telling me, “Only one stretcher a night for a Foley.” I also asked if I had used thumbtacks in my match and someone pointed out that I had about 100 of them stuck in my shoulder.
SLAUGHTER: I remember when we brought him backstage, we laid him out on a big table in an office. We started pulling the thumbtacks out of his hands, arms, legs and the bottoms of his boots. He needed to go to the hospital. He finally got up on his own, walked into the EMT wagon and went off to the hospital.
WWE.COM: Mick, is there anything you regret about that match?
FOLEY: I wish that I had the strength and the energy to really engage in a series with The Undertaker given the reaction of the crowd after we were back on top of the cell. I just didn’t have it in me. I wish we could have had some real give and take, but I was still reeling from that fall. That match hurt me for many months. If you look closely, you can see not only the tooth that broke in half, but the gray tooth that came out completely and was put back in and never took. So, it’s more or less a dead tooth that shouldn’t be replaced. The reason I’ve been so resistant to changing it is because it’s a souvenir from such a special night.
WWE.COM: From what you know, does The Undertaker also think it was a special night?
FOLEY: The Undertaker doesn’t Tweet. And rightfully so. I never get a text message from him. I never get a phone call. But when we do see each other, it’s with the understanding that we were part of something very special. My favorite part of my WWE Hall of Fame speech was not the humorous anecdotes, but the heartfelt stuff about The Undertaker and what he did for my career well before that Hell in a Cell match.
WWE.COM: What did your wife and kids think of the match when it happened?
FOLEY: They were very shaken up. My wife is very angry with me for taking those kinds of chances. I remember specifically going around town when we lived in the Florida Panhandle and looking for cheaper houses. That’s when I think I first accepted my own mortality in the wrestling world. Oddly – and maybe ironically – it became a turning point that I realized I should start connecting with the WWE Universe on a different level. I made a conscious decision to make my character more lighthearted, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
WWE.COM: And what does your family think about the match now many years later?
FOLEY: Three years ago, my wife told me that my younger kids wanted to watch the match. They had heard about it, they had seen clips. They wanted to see it. I had forgotten what an emotional roller-coaster that match was. I think most every wrestling fan has seen clips, but when you go back and watch the whole match, it’s compelling. It’s unnerving and it’s also fascinating. It’s become one of those moments that’s become etched in time that wrestling fans never forget. If that type of match had taken place today, it would have been stopped within the first minute.
ROSS: If that match happened today, I don’t see that match continuing. I don’t know if it’s my favorite match, but it’s definitely my most memorable match. It was a spectacle, it was an attraction, it was a trainwreck, it was career-threatening, it was unpredictable. It was something I’d never seen before.
WWE.COM: Do you agree with fans who say it is the best match ever?
FOLEY: I disagree with people who say that it’s the greatest match of all time. There were far greater matches. It may be the most compelling of all time. You could never plan that type of drama. In “Have a Nice Day,” I said calling the Hell in a Cell Match in 1998 “the greatest match of all time” is like calling the Titanic “the greatest cruise of all time.” It was not necessarily the match but the courage of the survivors that makes the match stand out.
WWE.COM: Do you think that match propelled you to becoming WWE Champion?
FOLEY: I think it played a role, but I think it was the changes I needed to make to Mankind’s persona in order to enable me to continue wrestling. Mankind became more likeable. He became funny. He became very sympathetic. Within a few months, there had been a tidal change in Mankind before the title change for Mankind. I didn’t plan it out, but there was a moment of symbolism when I took off my mask after the first fall. I stopped being Mankind to most people and became a human being.
WWE.COM: Is the match is still teaching you things about your career now that you're retired from the ring?
FOLEY: I don’t think it’s teaching me anything about my career, but I think it’s a good indication that specific moments in time can resonate with people for so many years. People will be talking about that match for another 15 and probably 15 years after that. I said in “Have a Nice Day” that it reminds me of Willie Mays’ catch in the 1956 World Series. It just kind of grows in legend over time. Most of the questions I get about Hell in a Cell come from people who were not even born when that match took place.
WWE.COM: And what do you feel needs to be said to the people who ask you those questions?
FOLEY: In summation, for anybody who’s been wondering for the past 16 years, yes, it did hurt when The Undertaker threw me off the cell.