What still stands as quite possibly the most viscerally memorable match in the modern history of World Wrestling Entertainment took place 20 years ago this week at Royal Rumble ‘99. How much of a compliment that is depends on your perspective.
Mick Foley, then in his Mankind persona, defended his newly-won WWE Championship against The Rock in an “I Quit” match. This was still several months before Foley would become a best-selling author for the first time and long before Dwayne Johnson became the biggest movie star in the world. The “I Quit” match reliably creates intense brawls, and tends to have a very different feel and a sharper edge than the conventional submission match, where the goal is to get the opponent to concede to a conventional hold. Enhanced by the constant presence of the house microphone brandished by the referee, an “I Quit” match allows the performers to play to both the live and television audiences in a unique way, which generally involves verbally taunting each other throughout while trying to get their opponent to say those two little words.
What made this match particularly memorable was not the quality of the performance at all, although it actually holds up as quite good 20 years later. It’s that the match ends with Rock legitimately beating Foley about the head in what amounted to a protracted and disturbing bludgeoning. Oh, and as part of Barry Blaustein’s theatrical documentary Beyond The Mat, cameras were stationed in front of Foley’s wife and kids the whole time. It’s not any easier to watch than it sounds, even now.
As a wrestling match, and assessed purely on those terms, almost all of it holds up remarkably well; it is certainly a more cohesive piece of storytelling than the most famous piece of trauma that Foley sustained in the ring, the Hell in a Cell match seven months earlier in which he took two harrowing falls from the top of the cage. The WWE of that era was not exactly, how shall we say, “good” for the most part when it comes to in-ring action, but Foley really does lead the Rock, who was then still incredibly green, through a wonderfully heated brawl. It’s gets excessive, of course, but it also feels much more serious than everything going on around it. Foley crashing from 12 feet up into “electrical circuit boards” that explode and cause a brief blackout in the arena still comes off as too hokey for such a big fall, but at least it’s taken seriously. It gets far, far more gnarly from there, though.
In the ending that the match is known for, Rock cuffs Foley’s hands behind his back, menaces him with the chair to try to get him to quit, and then goes to town on Foley’s unprotected head. “Goodbye brain cells!” heel announcer Jerry Lawler hoots on the commentary. Foley gets up, turns around, and eats the first chair shot to the head. It drops him to his knees; he later wrote that he was legitimately knocked down, as he didn’t account for how the handcuffs would change how his body absorbed the punishment. A second sends him onto his ass; at this point it’s clear that Foley has somehow been busted open, as well. Rock demands Foley quit, but the hero responds, “You’ll have to kill me!” Rock proceeds to do his best imitation of that, as Foley eats a third, fourth, and fifth shot, with the middle one in particular landing with a sickening thud. He goes down, finally, and a close-up shows that his leather half-mask is covered in blood. Shot number six comes on the floor with Rock coming from an odd, non-traditional angle at Foley’s side, as does shot number seven. They move into the aisle to set up the finish, and shot number eight, which Foley noticeably leans into, puts him down again. The blood is now everywhere, visible even in longer shots.
Number nine comes as soon as Foley turns around after getting up, directly in front of a fan’s “FOLEY IS GOD!” sign. Foley gets up yet again, and starts staggering towards the entrance with his back to the Rock, seemingly inviting a much safer shot to the back. Rock instead nails him with number ten in the back of the head, although the shot mercifully appears to land higher than the brain stem. At that point, Foley is face down, not moving, though that was the plan and not actually from the last shot. After a brief Rock soliloquy, the fans hear “I QUIT, I QUIT, I QUITTT!” over the P.A. system—very obviously a recording from Foley’s pre-match promo setting up a rematch.
Chair and other weapon shots to the head are largely and thankfully gone from mainstream wrestling these days. Before the mid-1990s, chairs to the head were also rare, but WWE leaned on them heavily during the promotion’s ’98-’99 boom period. Worse still was that virtually all of those, and all the ones Foley took against The Rock, failed to follow the established wrestling protocol for wrestlers that did want to take the rare shot to the head. The rule was for the recipient to always take a bump for a chair to the head, timing it so that it makes just enough contact to make a noise as the wrestler moves backwards with the shot. This isn’t to say that the “safer” method was safe—you do not need me to tell you that there is no safe way to get hit in the head with a folding chair—but it followed the basic logic of behind-the-scenes best practices and distributed the impact somewhat.
All of that said, according to Foley’s second memoir, Foley Is Good, his Rumble match with The Rock didn’t go down exactly as planned, anyway.
Foley writes that the idea was to be based on something he had been considering and internally tweaking for years. In that bit, he would still be handcuffed and still taking chairs to the head, but the drama would be centered on his wife, Colette, at ringside. Instead of sustained, repeated punishment, there would be a much smaller number of shots; Rock would milk the situation between each one while Mick’s wife bawled at ringside. After his kids found out about that plan, they were brought into it; both parents figured that it didn’t seem much worse than what they had seen him absorb before. Barry Blaustein and his crew also got clearance by WWE to shoot backstage around this time.
That original plan was fouled up after the head of USA (the book doesn’t name him) strongly defended the content of Monday Night Raw during a panel at the Television Critics Association Winter press tour, adding that he’d be taking his son to the Rumble. So Foley tweaked the bit: instead of finally quitting to spare his family, he took even more shots before being screwed by the man through that piped-in “I quit.”
But Colette and the kids were still going to be at ringside. After a weird montage set to “Stand By Me,” we see in Beyond The Mat that while Dewey, the older of the two Foley children, seemed to be moderately okay, younger daughter Noelle was hysterical. Colette wasn’t doing much better, and took them to the back right as the match was about to end. There have been accusations online of her hamming it up for years, which says more about the wrestling internet than it does anything else. That said, even beyond the obvious reasons, there’s ample proof that she wasn’t: During the promotion for Beyond The Mat, which coincided with Foley retiring as an active wrestler, Mick and Colette appeared together on ABC’s 20/20. There, she expressed very legitimate concerns to host Chris Cuomo about the head trauma that her husband had endured in his career. “His knees are the biggest problem, but they can always be replaced or repaired,” she said. “This [points to her head] can’t… Short-term memory, getting lost trying to drive home. Home where he’s lived for five, six years. Numbers, numbers are really bad.” That was one year after the match with the Rock.
In his book, Foley commended Vince McMahon for immediately agreeing that he should retire when he admitted that he was having memory problems. But publicly, after the 20/20 interview, McMahon put the heat on Colette, telling KNBR radio that the segment “reminded you of Robin Givens and Mike Tyson doing that interview where poor Mike Tyson is sitting there and Robin Givens is talking all about him.” (Foley and McMahon quickly settled that beef privately.)
That wasn’t the only fallout. In a Beyond The Mat scene that was only included in the home video “director’s cut” version, Foley expresses his frustration to The Rock about the shot he took in front of the “FOLEY IS GOD” sign. “And then you walked around me and gave me another one to the head?” Foley asks a notably aloof Rock. “I thought, ‘Oh, you bastard.’” Rock explained that wanted to corral a slow-moving Foley further up the aisle, but did not apologize for the extra shot(s). Unlike many of the other wrestlers, Rock had also not gone to check on Foley as he was being stitched up; it appears that Foley had to find him afterwards. This caused a rift between the two for months.
Years later, Foley admitted that, upon understanding that each time he had sustained a concussion every time he “saw stars” or something similar, he realized that he had suffered “dozens to up to 100 concussions.” In other interviews, it was “too many to count.” Foley was a gifted storyteller in the ring and became a brilliant talker over the course of his career, but his trademark was always taking punishment. In the grand scheme of Foley’s whole brutal career, it’s probably the Royal Rumble ’99 match didn’t do a huge percentage of the damage. But given that Foley didn’t really take any time off afterwards, it surely didn’t help.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast eery Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.