Jim Ross knew Mick Foley would be a good hire for the WWF and was willing to die on that hill.
Speaking on the latest episode of his Grilling Jr podcast, the legendary commentator spoke at length about Mankind and his first year in the World Wrestling Federation. At the time, Jim Ross was working as the Head of Talent Relations and wanted to change the culture in the locker room. He knew that Foley was a man with character and integrity; exactly the kind of person they needed to bring in. He said this about the backstage experience in 1996:
"His [Foley's] first three attempts to get hired were not successful. That was the result of what was perceived by upper management as less than impressive dark matches -- tryouts. When I got the job as head of talent relations, I really was interested in trying to create a different culture in the locker room. There were too many con men. There were too many, ‘hey, brother.’ Or, ‘what about my push?’ You had the audacity of some guys to say, ‘well when I get my push I’ll work harder.’ I’m thinking, ‘really? Are you ribbing me now? Are you really serious? If you’re really serious, I’m thinking now the thought bubble over my head, I want to do all I can to get your ass out of here.’ We don’t need that shit. So I knew Mick from -- I watched him a lot in Dallas working for the Von Erich’s and others… I had a feel for the guy."
Prior to his Hall of Fame career in the WWE, Foley also worked for WCW, ECW, and in Japan, among other places. Ross was also a former WCW employee, making this a very personal hire. He continued on:
"Then, myself and others that had vested interest in his success. We brought him to Atlanta to WCW, where I got to know him very well. You just saw a guy with high character. He had integrity. He was going to be on time, he was going to work his ass off, and he wasn’t popping pills. He wasn’t walking around like an Amoeba. That was the era where I’d like to forget all of it. Seeing guys that were not prepared to handle success. Were not prepared to handle the money they were making. They thought the money trail and the goose that laid the golden egg was never going to fly away. Mick was very conservative with his money. He wasn’t living high on the hog, as they say in our part, in Oklahoma and Alabama. So, I knew the kind of character that he was. Not a TV character, the human being. That was how that came about."
Despite his fervent belief that Mick was the right guy for the job, JR had to sell Vince McMahon on the idea. Ross was given some advice from McMahon but insisted that he be allowed to do the job he was brought in to do. Here's what he said:
"Then when I went to Vince [McMahon]. I had some idea, some guys I’d like for us to consider and I mentioned Mick, [Vince replies] ‘Oh, I don’t know. He’s tried out. So he asked somebody, I don’t know who he asked, he might have asked Bruce [Prichard] or [Pat] Patterson or whoever was there. [Vince asks] ‘How many times has he tried out here?’ [JR replies] ‘Oh, three.’ I’m thinking, maybe you geniuses made a mistake. I know that you invented wrestling and all of you have vested interest in the extreme knowledge that you have that’s extremely higher than mine or anybody that I know, but I don't get it. So I asked Vince, ‘if you want me to do this job, you got to give me a chance to do the job... [Vince said] ‘You need to know JR what it feels like to have a talent break your heart because you're really emotionally invested in this guy. You wanna bring him in, I can see you’re very serious, almost hell-bent on this. But you need to understand what it’s like to have a talent break your heart because he's not going to be successful.’"
What sealed the deal was the fact that WWF, at the time, needed a fresh adversary for The Undertaker. The Deadman had just turned, and there was no one around who met the unique challenges posed by a 7-foot babyface. Foley was seen as a stop-gap. Jim Ross used an NBA analogy, even though he knew Vince didn't watch basketball. He said the following:
"Okay. So he said, ‘what’s your idea to even do with him?’ I go here’s the deal, ‘we have a 7-foot babyface and he ain’t turning to be a heel. He’s already had that run and you wouldn't screw with that deal. We’re talking about Taker. I used the analogy, I said, ‘you know Vince, to use NBA parlance - that meant the National Basketball Association - [Vince replies] ‘oh yeah.’ He didn’t watch, but I was trying to use an illustration. When the Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they had the most dominant inside player in the game. To have a chance in the Western Division, to get out of their way and make it to the playoffs, beat them in the playoffs, and play for a Championship, you got to figure out some way to defend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So you got to match up with somebody. That’s kind of how I looked at this deal. We needed a dancing partner for The Undertaker until we got somebody else ready, and we didn’t have anybody ready at that point in time in my view. So that was kind of what went into that deal. I'm so glad that Vince acquiesced and saw a different light on Mick. Then he had that Hall of Fame run and has been great ever since."
When asked who was pushing back against his insistence that Foley could be a legitimate player, Jim Ross shared that it was primarily the Chairman of the Board. What bugged him the most, however, was how everyone tiptoed around McMahon to avoid crossing him. Here was his full response to the question:
"Primarily Vince, but when you see how things work and maybe they’ve changed now, I don’t know. Whoever’s in the room in any meeting would take the pulse of the old man before they would declare. So I always thought that was horseshit. That’s one of those deals where their testicles really would not fit into a thimble. You'd have plenty of room. C’mon, drop your set. Let’s go. I’ve told Vince that in private many times, so it's funny to me how so and so said this in this meeting and just yesterday he and I were talking about this very topic and he had a completely different view on it. He waited to hear what you had to say so that he wouldn't cross the boss or be perceived in that way. Insecurity."
The fact that Undertaker and Foley had an existing relationship also played a significant role in changing Vince's mind. Anything you can do to keep one of your top stars happy, you do. He added this:
"So, Vince is primarily the guy. He just didn't believe that Mick would get over. So I told him my plan with Taker. I said, ‘hell, If nothing else we get to shoot an angle on television. He’s a good talker, and we get a run with him.’ We were doing house shows, we needed a main event. It gave us a fresh match. I also knew that Taker and, as he called him, Jack, i.e. Cactus Jack, had great respect for each other. Because they had worked in those little shitholes, those small houses in Dallas. Not that Dallas is a shithole, but there were times when that territory really dipped."
Ross reiterated again that, to his knowledge, Prichard and Patterson had no issues with Mick, but didn't feel strongly enough about him to cross McMahon. JR, however, was willing. He closed by saying the following:
"I believed that he had something. It was a feeling. It was an instinctual feeling, and I thought, ‘if I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and Vince can say ‘I told you so. I told you he was going to break your heart because you're going to fire him now.’ That’s what would have happened. He would've said, ‘JR, I'm done with him. Give him his notice, today.’ That’s kind of how that worked, but basically, it was Vince leading the charge. I don’t think Bruce or Pat had any significant issues with Mick Foley whatsoever, but they certainly weren’t willing to die on the hill of Mick Foley to cross the boss. I was willing to do that."
Jim Ross referenced his signing of Mick Foley and the positive influence that he felt Mick would bring to the WWE locker room when discussing the positive impact he believes that Christian Cage and Paul Wight will bring to the locker room of All Elite Wrestling. Learn more here.
If you use any of the quotes above, please credit Grilling JR with a h/t and link back to Fightful for the transcription.