In one corner of the ring stands a man coming to the end of his career. He has won amazing victories, and suffered crushing defeats; taken on the guise of various memorable characters; unnerved, ensnared, and amused fans in equal measure. He has been battered, bruised and bloodied for the sake of his fans.
His name is Mick Foley.
In another corner of the ring stands a man coming into the prime of his career. He is perhaps the best wrestler in the world; certainly, he is becoming the most despised. He will be a major part of the industry and will shape its future as someone entrusted to represent the most famous wrestling company in the world.
His name is Triple H.
There are few men who are more polar opposites in the business. The first, Foley, is the everyman performer who endeared himself to fans by overcoming the odds that normally prevent wrestlers like him becoming a star. The second, HHH, is the rich Connecticut-born performer who has every possible string required to be a star.
On this day, on thing unites them: they are entrapped by four sides of demonic steel that has been the venue of countless brutalities; they have entered into a gateway of hell; a path of no return.
It is 27 February 2000, and they will settle their differences inside Hell in a Cell. Truly, as the PPV itself said, there will be No Way Out.
What a match this was. What a rivalry it was.
When these two enemies, who had fought each other on-and-off since 1997, finally collided in a main event scenario, the results were as barbaric as they were spectacular.
The stakes? One man’s illustrious career, versus the richest prize in wrestling history.
How, though, did it come to this?
It began at SummerSlam. Mick Foley (as Mankind) shocked the world again by winning the WWF Championship until losing it the very next night to the conniving Triple H.
That no doubt hurt Foley, but it was something he could accept. What he could not accept was the subsequent weeks, in which he was mocked and tormented by the champion Triple H, and his powerful wife Stephanie. Together, their tyrannical reign of power was remembered as the McMahon-Helmsley era.
And Foley was their biggest victim. Forced into a match against friend and former tag team partner The Rock, in which the loser would be fired, the Hardcore Legend kissed goodbye to his job. That is, until the entire WWF roster threatened to walk out on the company unless he was reinstated.
Thus, he returned.
And suddenly, shit got real.
One of the best promos in wrestling history, and one of the most memorable moments, led to what was arguably the greatest match of both men’s careers at the Royal Rumble.
Naturally, it was a Street Fight.
In it, Triple H cemented himself as the best competitor in the wrestling industry at the time, and as Cactus Jack, Mick Foley proved in front of his hometown fans that he wasn’t simply the man with a sock puppet.
It was the final step on their road to No Way Out.
To get their, Mick Foley had to promise that should he lose in his final chance at Triple H, he would retire.
As the match began, part of the early psychology involved Cactus Jack being unable to get outside of the steel cell, much to the relief of Triple H. Nonetheless, they tortured each other inside the ring and outside it, until a hole in the wall was literally created by an errant throw of the steel steps.
Cactus Jack suddenly had that psychotic, unmistakable gleam in his eyes, and the crowd roared their approval as he and Triple H took their bitter feud outside of the imposing steel walls.
Few things are as heart-stopping as a table bump that the announce table doesn’t sell; in this case, Triple H is piledriven onto it and it doesn’t budge an inch, forcing all the pressure onto The Game’s head. As awe-inspiring as some of the later bumps in this match are, this one remains memorable.
Inevitably, both men end up atop the cell, and Cactus brings with him his trademark barbed wire 2×4. Not before his first attempt at climbing is thwarted though, and he ends up taking a fall from near the top of the cell. This time, the announce table has no choice but to yield.
When he finally makes it up their, everyone in the arena holds their breath in anticipation of what will happen next. Then, suddenly, the 2×4 is engulfed by flames and they explode with excitement. Wrestling crowds can be feral, and this match unleashes their primitive urges for unbridled violence.
And then they got what they wanted.
The Game gets his comeuppance, nailed in the face with the flames of justice. Moments later however, his class endures and he back body drops Cactus through the roof of the cell and to the floor below.
His warrior spirit enduring, Cactus staggers to his feet. Triple H, disbelieving, ends things with a Pedigree.
A new franchise is anointed, and an old hero is forced to say goodbye to his adoring fans.
The match itself encapsulated brutality at its finest. It was a showcase of everything Mick Foley was about, in what would ultimately be his final act as a regular wrestler; typical of the man himself, that final act involved helping to create a new star for the future.
And make no mistake, Triple H came out of this rivalry as a star.
For the rest of the year 2000 and the first third of 2001, he would proceed to have a litany of unforgettable, high-quality matches with fellow stars such as The Rock, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle and Stone Cold Steve Austin. His retiring of Foley and other devious acts made him the biggest heel in wrestling at the time.
As for Foley, his retirement would prove to last only a month as Vince McMahon tempted him into the main event of WrestleMania, something he had forever dreamed of.
After that, his retirement was more tangible, though he would still have the occasional “special attraction” match. Two such matches, with Randy Orton and Edge, were among the best of his career and continued his trend of helping elevate young stars to main event legitimacy.
Nonetheless, the ascension of Triple H is perhaps Mick Foley’s greatest accomplishment. Certainly, neither of these men ever played off anyone else as perfectly as they did each other for those short few months at the beginning of the new millennium.
On February 27, thirteen years ago today, the bright light of Mick Foley’s soon-to-be Hall of Fame career was extinguished, while the flickering flame that was Triple H had kerosene poured over it.
It was a privilege to watch, and it is a privilege to remember.