TODAY marks 20 years since Mick Foley – as his alter ego Mankind – won the WWE Championship.
More than just a title change, January 4, 1999 is one of the most infamous nights in professional wrestling history.
It came at the height of the WWE v WCW “Monday Night Wars”, with Raw and Nitro going head-to-head with competing world titles matches.
On Raw, Mankind challenged WWE Champion The Rock in a no disqualification match, with DX and The Corporation in their respective corners.
On Nitro, rival NWO faction leaders Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash faced off for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship – the now infamous “fingerpoke of doom”.
As WWE legend goes, it’s a night that changed everything – an all-important moment in WWE’s ultimate victory over WCW in the ratings war. Here’s why it was such a legendary night:
It’s a peak Attitude Era Raw
The January 4, 1999 Raw sums up what the show was all about in the Attitude Era – exciting, unpredictable, and occasionally bad taste.
It had shenanigans from Mr McMahon’s crooked Corporation and The Rock during his meteoric rise – plus DX at the height of their babyface popularity.
Al Snow battled Road Dogg in a hardcore title match, which went around the arena and out into the snowy streets of Worcester, Massachusetts – a brawl that set the template for hardcore matches in WWE.
In one unpleasant angle, the supposedly pregnant Terri Runnels was knocked from the ring apron by D-Lo Brown and feigned a miscarriage.
But the big news was also a show-long storyline – something Raw did brilliantly during the Attitude Era and does terribly now – which built to Mankind’s title shot against The Rock.
Meanwhile, Nitro – a big three-hour show from the Georgia Dome – was dominated by more dreary NWO-based drama, a storyline that had been running for the best part of three years by this point.
Stone Cold’s entrance is the biggest pop of all time
At the finish of the Mankind v Rock match, DX and the Corporation erupted into a brawl around the ring.
Among the chaos the familiar sound of glass smashing hits for perfectly timed Stone Cold Steve Austin run-in – for perhaps the greatest, most skin-prickling crowd pop of all time.
Stone Cold clobbered Rock with a chair and draped Foley over the champ for the three- count, to another immense crowd reaction.
By now, the surprise return/run-in (and the crowd pop that goes with it) is one of most popular tropes in wrestling – moments that fans watch again and again. (See also: Jericho’s debut, Dolph Ziggler’s cash-in, and the Hardy Boyz’ return at WrestleMania 33.)
But the Stone Cold run-in/pop is the benchmark – a defining Attitude Era clip and the crowd reaction that every big wrestling moment since has strived to replicate.
If you were a fan at the time, it’s near impossible to watch Stone Cold’s entrance and Foley’s win without getting goosebumps.
Bruce Prichard revealed on his podcast last week that Austin – who had been off TV with injuries and sickness at the time – was only on hand because he was shooting a commercial, so was written into the finish of the match.
How different wrestling history could have been if Stone Cold hadn’t made that appearance.
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It was the crowning moment of Mick Foley
Foley AKA Mankind is best remembered for his huge bump off Hell in a Cell a King of the Ring 1998. But Foley winning the world title arguably means more to WWE.
It’s well known that Vince McMahon was originally reluctant to hire Foley.
An unorthodox, one-eared, frumpy-looking worker who made his reputation by taking realistic punishment, the “Hardcore Legend” didn’t fit the superstar mould.
McMahon relented and hired Mick – but only if he could hide him under a mask as Mankind.
Foley was never meant to be WWE World Heavyweight Champion and was an unlikely candidate for the Attitude Era’s third most popular babyface, behind only Stone Cold and The Rock.
But by January 1999 – as the walls between kayfabe and reality were bashed down – he was loved and respected by both fans and wrestlers alike.
Everyone knew what he’d put his body through for pure wrestling passion.
The storyline reflected reality – Mr McMahon wanted to stop the freakish Mankind from being his company’s top champion at all costs. (McMahon’s feet-stamping tantrum after Foley wins the title – “That makes me wanna puke!” – is pure comedy gold.)
Foley emulating the Rocky speech after the match – “Yo, Daddio did it!” – was perfect.
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Because Foley defeating WWE’s handpicked corporate champ The Rock is the ultimate feel-good underdog moment. And Foley’s WWE career is all about big moments.
Crashing off Hell in a Cell. Being speared through a burning table. Revealing himself as Cactus Jack for the first time. Revealing himself as Cactus Jack for the SECOND time. Brutal bumps onto thumb tacks.
But Foley winning the title against all odds has also become an important narrative in WWE.
Foley’s story – from being inspired by seeing Jimmy Snuka splash Don Muraco in the crowd as a teenager to becoming WWE Champion himself – is what the emotion of pro wrestling is all about.
With a generation of superstars who grew up watching Foley and other stars of the era, WWE isn’t just selling wrestling shows anymore – it’s selling dreams come true.
It’s the night the NWO started to sink WCW
The formation of the NWO in 1996 changed the wrestling business forever.
But ironically, the thing that had made WCW the hottest wrestling promotion in the world would eventually overrun it and put it out of business, as new stars struggled to break through the all-domineering egos and creative mess.
Go back now and the NWO’s constant run-ins, warring factions, and nonsensical storylines
make Nitro almost unwatchable.
Kevin Nash – leader of NWO Wolfpac – had controversially ended Goldberg’s undefeated streak just weeks before at Starrcade to become WCW Champion.
He’d offered Goldberg a rematch on Nitro in front of 40,000 fans at the Georgia Dome – WCW’s home turf stadium – but Goldberg was arrested early on in the show for stalking Miss Elizabeth.
Instead, rival NWO faction leader Hulk Hogan – who had “retired” the previous month and announced his intention to run for president – arrived at the Georgia Dome, prompting Nash to challenge the Hulkster to a title match.
What transpired is one of wrestling’s most notorious swerves – the “fingerpoke of doom”.
Hogan went for a punch but instead just poked Nash in the chest. Nash bumped back onto the mat and layed down for an immediate 3-count.
It was a set-up all along. Hulk Hogan was WCW Champion once again and the rival NWO factions had reunited.
Hilariously, WCW announcer Tony Schiavone said just before the match: “This is what wrestling – World Championship Wrestling – is all about.”
Fans understandably pelted the ring with garbage.
It was a fitting response to what they had just seen play out in the ring – an angle that perfectly encapsulated the ego, politics, and ridiculous booking that ultimately destroyed WCW.
It was one of the most famous shots fired during the Monday Night War
Both WWE and WCW used underhanded tactics against each other during its bitter ratings
WCW boss Eric Bischoff once challenged Vince McMahon to a match on PPV, while WWE sent DX to “invade” Nitro.
WWE mocked the advancing years of WCW’s top talent (a Hulk Hogan v Roddy Piper cage match from Halloween Havoc would forever be known as “Age in a Cage”).
And wrestlers jumped ship between companies in a never-ending game of one-upmanship.
The most personal shot came on the January 4 Nitro.
Nitro was broadcast live and Raw had been pre-recorded the week before, so Tony Schiavone – under the orders of Eric Bischoff – gave away the result to the pre-taped Mankind v Rock title match.
Schiavone said: “If you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not.
“Because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Oh, that’s going to put some butts in the seats.”
WCW had given away results to Raw pre-tapes before but not for a match of this magnitude.
The famously thin-skinned Foley was upset with the comments and later phoned Schiavone about it.
It was underhanded, spiteful comment but also an act of sheer stupidity that backfired spectacularly.
After Schiavone told fans that the WWE title would change hands, an estimated 375,000 fans changed the channel.
The irony of WCW mocking Foley’s title win when it was staging such awful television itself is – as Kevn Nash and Scott Hall would say – too sweet.
And the number of people who changed channel proved WCW wrong. Foley’s title win was a success – he had put butts in seats.
In truth, it wasn’t this night alone that killed WCW.
The real ratings slump for Nitro came later in the year, thanks to many bad decisions by WCW, both in and out the ring – not just one fingerpoke of doom.
But it was the night that proved how exciting WWE could be versus how dumb WCW was at its worst.