When Wrestlers Go Good: Have a Nice Day! and Foley Is Good in Review
by Dale Sherman
Wrestler Mick Foley appeared on last week's WWF Tough Enough. He has authored several books and broken new ground in what he's said and how he's said it. If you're interested in wrestling, television, or the entertainment world in general, his books are worth a look.
In the years since professional wrestling has become a standard of television, it has become part of the public consciousness – whether the public likes it or not. No matter what they thought, they at least knew that it was a variation of amateur wrestling. They knew that it is popular. They knew that it involves men – sometimes women as well – physically maneuvering around what appears to be a standard boxing-ring in hopes of pinning their opponent. They also understood it to be violent, to be “faked” and to be either great, worth a laugh, or pathetically idiotic.
Whether these thoughts by some individuals are right or wrong has little to do with this review. What is important to remember however is how the public at large has a pretty good picture in their head of what professional wrestling is when they hear the name. In other words, it has become a “household” name. Go up to any stranger in the street and ask them if they know what “professional wrestling” is and, while they may respond in disgust, the answer would most likely be a “yes.”
Ask anyone to name five well-known wrestlers, and then a different problem arises. People at least vaguely know wrestling, but unless they are fans, they have no idea who the people are who are involved in wrestling. A fan could name several, and a devoted fan could probably name hundreds from over the years. Legends of the sport (and let’s just agree to use that term here to save time; whether one believes it a sport can wait for another article) are many, but the ones that are remembered by the general public are few. Gorgeous George and Killer Kowalski are a couple, but no matter what their fame and skills were in the ring, people remember them as vague punchlines to jokes. Hulk Hogan had an incredible amount of fame in the 1980s, so some remember him as well, but that may be partially due to his ability to move over to television and the big screen. Jesse Ventura is still remembered because of his leap to the political arena more so than his years in the ring. The Rock, although an incredibly talented wrestler, is riding high due to his jump to the big screen as well.
Joining that rank of wrestlers who have become household names recently is Mick Foley. How did it come about? Oddly enough through a forum that many outside of the fans would have thought impossible for a wrestler – through writing a best-selling biography about his years in the sport.
But let us back up a bit and talk about Foley and how the books came about.
In 1999, Mick Foley was riding high in the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) as a character called Mankind. Briefly, the WWF is the main “major league” for wrestling in the U.S. (to put it into terms most non-fans will understand). At the time, it was one of two “major leagues” for wrestling, but with the buyout and absorption of the WCW earlier this year by the WWF, the WWF is now the sole outlet for national and international (instead of regional) wrestling in the country. Because of his popularity, it was decided that an autobiography would be a big success for Foley and the WWF.
Which is where some problems came into play. The standard thinking of entertainment autobiographies, whether it is for movie stars, rock performers, or sport figures, is that a bio is a great idea; having the actual person the bio is about write it isn’t a great idea. Some of the individuals being written about, they just don’t want to bother with it. Others just don’t have the talent to put into written word what they want to say.
Some of these personalities know their shortcomings, others attempt to write and realize later that they need help. Some, unfortunately, never realize their terrible writing skills until their work is already on the shelves in bookstores. Thus, it is typically assumed that such bios will be written with either a ghostwriter (a writer whose name never appears in the book even though they did all the work) or with a co-writer (a writer whose name appears in the book even though they did all the work). In many cases, it involves the real writer doing some interviews with the subject, a little bit of research, and then writing the text in a style that mimics that of the person the book is about so that it reads like their own voice. It is an accepted standard that seems on the surface to be for everyone’s benefit. The publisher gets a book that will sell; the performer gets a big fat check; the real writer gets a nice check and a book that they can (sometimes) use on their resume; and the fans get a chance to read about their heroes. So everyone wins.
Foley seemed like a perfect subject for such a book. He had been in wrestling for years and had found fame due to his unique physical shape, physical abilities, and his mindset in the ring. Physically, he certainly is not the Adonis figure that many picture when thinking of the superstars of wrestling. Foley is a big man who tends to dress in t-shirts and sweats, and although he looks like he would not be the guy to face off with in a bar-fight, he also doesn’t look like he would win any Mr. Universe pageants. He also tended to play characters that were deranged in one way or another, yet still had an oddly humorous appeal to them as well. No matter the characters, one could feel from watching him in the ring and in his promos (brief microphone interviews where the wrestler will try to get the audience interested in their characters and matches) that the wheels were always turning in his head on how to make the show work better, be funnier, or more dramatic.
His characters were creative and still the talk of wrestling circles: Cactus Jack, the crazed hardcore wrestler using everything from flaming chairs to baseball bats covered in barbed wire in his matches; Dude Love, the tie-dyed uncoordinated hipster with his lady friends; and, most famously to people outside of wrestling circles, Mankind, the terrorized and terrified man-child of his early WWF years who did the bidding of those around him until slowly coming of age in the ring over time.
Foley is also known for being . . . well, just plain nuts when it came to physical punishment in the ring. His famous dive off the top of the steel cage during his Hell in a Cell match in 1998 has been used many times to show the insanity level of Foley’s wish to do anything in the ring to get the fans’ attention. He has also faced severe burns, numerous brainings, wild slashes and cuts, and has probably lost enough blood over time to fill a blood bank – all for the sake of putting on a good match for the audience.
Foley had also seen the world in wrestling, had been in practically every major league in the U.S. and in other countries and had seen the hardship of training and years of playing in barns and warehouses while trying to make it. In other words, there was not much of a chance for a book about Foley to go south, there were too many good stories to tell there.
A problem soon arose when the book was started, however. As the custom, a writer was assigned to work with Foley on the writing of the bio. Foley was a bit unsure about the idea, as he had designs to write the book himself. That was against tradition and Foley was convinced to work with the writer, yet they soon drifted apart in how Mick’s story should be told. Finally, Foley went to the head of the WWF and asked to write the book himself, without help from another source.
After much debate, it was decided to let him work on the book alone. This turned out to be an excellent choice, as Foley put out a book that was a major revelation for the public’s attitude towards wrestling.
His first book, Have a Nice Day!, was released in 1999 and shot to the top of the best-sellers list. Not bad in itself, although not completely surprising as bios about famous individuals tend to sell very well no matter if they are written well or not. What was fascinating about Foley’s writing was how indepth and down-to-earth it appeared to casual readers. This was due to Foley writing the book himself and not following what had always been the standard guidelines for bios about wrestlers in the past: he didn’t stay in character.
In fact, he did something completely unorthodox – he named names. More so, he did not try to paint a “happy face” on everything that had happened to him in the WWF. This was just a complete breakaway from books of the past. Sure, there had been one or two books about wrestling that tried to show the reality of the business (such as Pure Dynamite by Tommy “The Dynamite Kid” Billington, or Bodyslams! by Gary Michael Cappetta, both highly recommended), but such books were from minor publishers and after such talents had left certain parts of the business behind. Thus, there was always the tinged feeling that no matter how truthful the writing was, “sour grapes” could have played a hand in the writing. (By the way, I would not say that is the case with either of the books listed above; just that it is an argumentative point of view that will always tarnish some readers’ view of such books.)
In the same token, most bios published about wrestlers while the wrestlers are at the height of their careers tend to play up their “happy association” with whatever league or federation they were currently in. Foley’s book was one of the first (if not THE first) sanctioned by the WWF that allowed the wrestler to state where they found fault or problems with their presentation in the federation.
It was also a first in allowing to break the “fourth wall” of the wrestling-world. Wrestling has always had a stonewall between the public and the inner-workings of the business. It still does in many ways, and understandably so. Wrestling is ridiculed and laughed at for the very things that make it so popular – good guys vs. bad guys, planned outlines for storylines, the ability of the wrestlers to put on a show at the same time as performing hugely incredible athletic feats. Meanwhile, people got hurt in wrestling and people bonded in wrestling. To them it was certainly more real than what the skeptics and cynics gave it. So the fans and the wrestlers hedged when it came to explaining that sometimes things were “faked,” that things could be scripted in advance. Sure, they knew; but to let it be known to the critics was definitely a no-no.
Most wrestling bios up to that point dealt with the wrestlers “in character.” They weren’t about the wrestler’s true history – their background and family life – they were about the character and that character’s history. It was assumed that it was all fans wanted to read about anyway. If the publisher and WWF had kept to their original mindset on the book, Mick Foley’s book would have been a 200-page picture book of Mankind screaming for Mommy and talking about how he found Mr. Socko. Instead, Foley wrote about himself, about his true upbringing, about his wife and kids. In doing so, reading about the other events in Mick’s life just takes on a more dramatic air and better read than anything a written-in-character book would have given us.
Foley also refused to gloss over his feelings about things he had personally run into in the wrestling world. He gives detailed descriptions of events that he thought did not work, even discussing decisions in the WWF that he felt were wrong for him (for example, the original ideas for Mankind that almost sent Foley into a bout of depression). To allow an employee to take such a stance about the company was a meaningful breakthrough for such a closed-structure society as the world of professional wrestling.
Breaking that “fourth wall” between the show and the audience gave them an inside look into the business itself. For Foley and the WWF, it was a drastic risk and represented a chance in the way things were done in the business from that point forward. Since then, other bios have come out from other wrestlers that have dealt with this newfound freedom. Even other bios about WWF wrestlers, such as the one for the Rock and the one for Chyna, had been written dealing with the REAL individuals behind the characters instead of just written “in character’ alone.
Saying that, it should not be suggested that Foley’s first book, a massive 500+ pages in its first hardback edition (the paperback contained an additional chapter), is simply a dry technical read about the mechanics of wrestling. Yes, there are certainly plenty of stories that give readers an insider’s view of what it is like to be a wrestler in every level of the game, and Foley does a wonderful job of explaining the good and bad times in even the worst wrestling situations possible. However, it is also a personal history about his determination to become a wrestler and make it. It is also important to point out that Foley is so entertaining in his writing because he knows that sometimes it is impossible to write about such outrageous antics without finding the humor in it. One can just tell the Foley has the ability to take himself outside of the experiences is say to himself at times, “boy, that was just crazy.” It is because of this that even the most violent turn in the narrative reads more as a friend’s story about something that happened to him once instead of a grisly crime novel.
Foley covers just about everything in his career up to 1999: from his teenage film as Dude Love jumping off the roof of his house to mattresses below, his years sleeping in his car in order to train as a wrestler, his independent years working for anyone that would have him, his years in the crazed world of Japanese wrestling, his horrendous problems in the WCW, his wild years of hardcore in the ECW and finally his triumphant rise to national fame as Mankind in the WWF. Along the way are several great stories about the matches, the rewards and the problems he faced. It can be a difficult read for the squeamish, however, and if one has problems getting through the first chapter (dealing with Foley losing an ear in a match while wrestling in Germany), it is probably best not to go much further. Foley also has no problems in using language and discussion of bodily functions that some may find offensive (although typically used in a humorous manner).
It is also helpful that readers have some idea as to who the players are in the book. Although Foley does a great job in describing stories and getting the voices of the individuals down in the dialogue used, there is a sense that the reader is expected to know at least some of the names discussed. Even fans may prefer to have a working knowledge of the other wrestlers discussed in order to get a better visual image of some of the stories told in the book.
It is a great book for starting fans, nevertheless. It not only gives readers a good idea of what hardship wrestlers have to go through while trying to make it, it paints a very human picture of the wrestlers and even of some of the owners and other employees of the business as well. Fans of Tough Enough may also enjoy the book for the constant jabs and stories about Al Snow (the main trainer on TE). Foley is fond of Snow (they were roommates on the road at one time and remain friends), and even with the continuous swipes at Snow, it is obvious.
The book when released, combined with Foley’s appearance in the excellent wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, led to two things: massive sales for Foley’s book, and an appreciation of Foley by the general public. Foley had become a celebrity and became more than a wrestler – he became an author and regular human being in the eyes of the public.
From the standpoint of professional wrestling, Foley’s first book had a greater achievement – it allowed people to see the real interworkings of wrestling, it gave readers a chance to appreciate the sport in a new light. Foley did so not by “exposing” it like some cheap investigative reporting expose, but rather by looking the reader in the eyes and saying “this is my world and this is what I have experienced.” By doing so with such humor and honesty, Foley made readers give up their preconceived notions of the sport and understand that it does take talent and ability to perform in professional wrestling. It also, no doubt, drew people to watching the WWF shows in order to see the author at work in some form. In letting Foley have his way, it actually helped the WWF more than if they had forced him to stick with his ghostwriter and turn out the typical wrestling bio of the past.
The first book was so successful that Foley was able to begin work on a sequel after finishing work on a Christmas fable, Mick Foley’s Christmas Chaos, which had its own critical problems when it was released (and which he covers in the sequel as well). The sequel, Foley is Good . . . and the Real World is Faker than Wrestling, was released in 2001. Coming in at about 470 pages, it is a slightly smaller book that dealt with his rise in popularity after the release of the first book, along with some of the consequences of his matches that occurred afterwards as well. It is also a more serious book than the first, dealing with problems facing wrestling due to censorship concerns of the PTC (Parents Television Council) and the problems of incredibly idiotic people trying to imitate moves in wrestling at home.
In fact, such a serious tone undermines the second book, as Mick spends about a quarter of the book defending wrestling against the charges made by the PTC that wrestling is damaging the children of America. Foley’s heart is in the right place, and his thesis exploring and disputing the attack is admirable. It is also, unfortunately, a thesis that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the book. Yes, the title of the book clearly shows that Foley wants to take on the charges of “fakery” in wrestling and defending a livelihood that he loves; yet, within the context of the book itself, it gives the overall feel of the book a very split perspective. One part bio, one part research paper, it fails to quite mesh into a logical, seamless whole. Perhaps Foley should have considered the option of writing a book about the PTC first and waiting on more biographical antidotes until another time. As it stands, the book just feels a bit incomplete for readers who wanted biographical information and those who wanted a discussion about the critics’ charges. It also dates the book instantly by dealing with a timely topic instead of the universal nature of a biography. That may pose a problem for the book in later reprints.
That is not to say that the book is a failure. It is still an enjoyable read and highly recommended. For those who come to it right after reading Have a Nice Day!, it may be more of a challenge to get through the final quarter of the book than expected.
Overall, those interested in learning more about the real world of wrestling, especially after seeing Tough Enough, would be best advised to at least pick up Have a Nice Day! For those who want more of an understanding of current complaints about wrestling, Foley is Good is a sure thing as well.
What will the future hold for Mick Foley? It will be interesting to see. Obviously, although he continues to make appearances on WWF’s programs and has mentioned that he probably has at least one more match to come, he is branching out to do other things. Another book soon? Indeed, Mick Foley’s Halloween Hijinx is due next month, as Foley has proven that he is not just a wrestler who happens to write, but also a writer who just happens to wrestle.
Dale Sherman is the author of several music biographies including his most recent book, 20th Century Rock and Roll: Women in Rock, which is available now. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.