‘Cane Dewey’: Cactus Jack and Wrestling’s Greatest Promo

In the late summer of 1995, Cactus Jack (Mick Foley) cut one of the greatest promos in wrestling history, Cane Dewey. In this article, I will be looking at what led up to this moment and examine just why it is so innovative and influential, even to this day. So buckle up: things are about to get Extreme!

“Whoever dubbed Philadelphia the “City of Brotherly Love” never attended an athletic event there.”

Scott E. Williams, Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW

The City of Brotherly Violence

Philadelphia is not a place that is known for being warm and fuzzy. Hell, this was the city that inspired the claustrophobic and malevolent mood of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, an indictment if there ever was one except – Lynch perversely loved the mood in the city, even as he was chasing burglars out of his house with a sword. Very ECW.

This gleeful aggression seeped through the pores of the city and into the city’s sporting community. The author Scott E. Williams commented:

‘For years, Philadelphia fans have been known within the sporting world as among the most demanding, bloodthirsty fans in North America. They were the fans who cemented their reputation as Americas most vicious in 1968 when they booed Santa Claus, pelting the jolly symbol of Christmas goodwill with snowballs and profanity in Veterans Stadium. They were the fans who gave a loud cheer when Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending neck injury during a 1999 game in the same stadium.’ [1]

So you can imagine the carnage-hungry, small but dedicated fan base that came to descend on a small bingo hall at 2300 South Swanson Street, looking for a kind of professional wrestling that took things to the extreme.

ECW was a fledgling promotion co-run by Tod Gordon, formerly of ECW’s natural precursor the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance (TWA), and by creative maverick and general loose cannon Paul Heyman, formerly the wonderfully cocky manager and commentator Paul E. Dangerously in WCW. Beginning in 1992 as Eastern Championship Wrestling, gradually the company came alive with Heyman’s vision of the company capturing the edgy, cynical cultural zeitgeist of the time.

Paul Heyman has since said:

I thought that the business, the industry, the presentation needed to change in the same way that music had changed, because music was all about Poison and Motley Crue and Winger and all these hair bands and then along came Nirvana and BAM, the whole industry changed. So in the same way I thought wrestling needed to change, in that wrestling had become the equivalent of hair bands. And we needed wrestling’s version of Nirvana to come along and just shake everything up. [2]

By the end of 1994, the ‘Eastern’ was swapped out. Spurred on by more adult, provocative gimmicks like the beer-swilling, cigarette smoking Sandman and streetwise, straight-talking Gangstas, and the suicidal death-leaping of Sabu and his scar-laden body, the weapon-swinging mayhem of Public Enemy, not to mention an increase in match types such as no rope barbed wire matches and ‘Tapei Death’ matches where competitors taped their hands up and dunked them in buckets of broken glass before duking it out, it was fair to say the promotion more than lived up to its new moniker: Extreme. Championship. Wrestling.

Mr. Bang Bang!

One of the companies heroes was Cactus Jack. Legendary even then for putting his body on the line and taking insane back-breaking bumps that many others wouldn’t dream of. He also had previous Philadelphia experience, having endured a legendary series with the late Eddie Gilbert, each match escalating the violence and blood until it resulted in Cactus becoming entangled in barbed wire and having to be cut free with wire cutters. The matches gained a large cult following on the tape trading circuit and went some way towards building the legend of Cactus Jack.

But by August of 1995, Cactus Jack was faced with an intriguing proposition. The company had decided that they wanted to turn Cactus into a heel, a bad guy, someone that the fans would want to boo and see get their ass kicked. How was he supposed to do that, Cactus asked himself? He wasn’t against the turn, but he was ingrained in the Philadelphia fan base’s collective imagination as the embodiment of violent, hardcore wrestling. As long as he was engaged in some sort of violent action, the fan base would cheer him on, the hardcore hero, bleeding for their sins.

As luck would have it, if it could be called luck, real life was about to intervene and provide quite an authentic inspiration. But first came the heel turn itself.

During a tag team match between Raven and three of the Dudley Boys against The Pitbulls, Tommy Dreamer, and Cactus Jack, Cactus Jack broke up Tommy Dreamer’s pinfall on Raven and planted him with a vicious double arm DDT on a chair, allowing for Raven to score the pinfall and the victory.

Cactus had turned heel, leaving the fans in the arena that night in shock. Now he had to find a reason for the fans to believe in him as a heel, sustain the interest.

The Thin Line Between Good And Bad

Wrestlers can either have really simple motivations for their actions (wanting to be a champion and therefore best in the world), or they can have ridiculous reasons (Razor Ramon wanting to give Goldust a beating because Goldust kept touching him, a ridiculous and homophobic storyline).

ECW management wanted Cactus’ heel turn to help push Tommy Dreamer over the line with the ECW fans, and convince them he was worthy as the main event and, perhaps more importantly in Philadelphia, that he was hardcore. Mick Foley, the man behind Cactus Jack, had this to say in his first autobiography:

Tommy was a personal project of Paul E.’s who was willing to do anything for the acceptance of the fans. He had once been a laughingstock of the company, as no matter what body part he sacrificed, the fans continued to shower him with ridicule. The hardcore ECW fans had despised him partly because he was a good-looking young man, and partly because of his ridiculous ring attire that included green suspenders. Eventually his determination, Paul E.’s ingenuity, and other talented wrestlers got him over to the point where he was at least respected if not completely loved. The fans’ chants to him of “He’s hardcore, he’s hardcore,” seemed at least partially in jest, but nonetheless he seemed poised on the brink of stardom and needed just a little something extra to push him completely over. I was it. [3]

Despite the slightly condescending tone to the above quote, Cactus was selfless enough, as he was to his credit, many times in his career, to help ECW put Tommy Dreamer over and give him that authenticity that a feud and a victory over a hardcore legend could do.

This wasn’t enough however for Cactus. A man very dedicated to his craft and with great pride in his work, he knew that to convincingly put Tommy over he would have to convince the bloodthirsty ECW fan base not to cheer him on anymore. Simply attacking Tommy Dreamer would not be enough.

He had also been thinking a lot about character motivation, how to create a more rounded, more complex, and rich character, rather than the simplistic or ridiculous figures that were prevalent in 1995. Just as psychology matters in the ring—How are you going to beat your opponent? Why? Does it make sense to the story being told?— psychology should also be equally as important outside the ring to enrich what is happening inside:

I had been thinking about psychology and criminal deviance-what makes a warped mind snap…I liked to refer to Robert De Niro’s Max Cady in Cape Fear as my favorite heel. In many ways, he wasn’t a heel at all; he was a man who had been wronged and went about seeking his own form of vengeance. Max was tough, intense, and filled with testicular fortitude. The babyface of the movie, Nick Nolte, was wishy-washy and weak. My favorite scene in any movie…is when Nolte hires three men to rough up Cady and then hides behind a dumpster to watch his plan unfold. Cady takes a hell of a beating at the hands of a baseball bat, a pipe, and a bicycle chain, but he makes a comeback nonetheless. As the heel stands bloody and battered and delivers the classic line “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” the babyface is breathless and cowering. The line between good and bad had never been so thin. I wanted to walk that line with Tommy Dreamer. All I needed was a reason. [4]

The King of Death Matches and Paltry Pay Offs

Perhaps the events of only seven days previous were still playing heavily on Cactus’ mind when he entered the studio aka Paul Heyman’s mother’s garage, to cut his promo. On August 20th, 1995, Cactus Jack participated in the infamous King of the Death Match tournament hosted by the IWA in Kawasaki Stadium, Japan. The tournament was designed to bring together some of the biggest names in hardcore deathmatch wrestling, and the event itself was a big draw, with a crowd of 28,757 turning up to see the carnage.

On the day Cactus participated in three different matches: a ‘Barbed Wire Baseball Bat and Thumbtacks’ match, a Barbed Wire Board and Spike Nail’ match, and, in the final (prepare yourself), a ‘Barbed Wire Rope, Barbed Wire Board and Exploding Ring Time Bomb Death Match.’ Just one such match would be enough for one wrestler for a lifetime. Imagine the trauma of three of these on the body all in one night!

Case in point: the exploding C4! boards in the final match gave Cactus a burn so severe that he had to be moved on the plane home as he was offending the other passengers, and his wife, in all innocence, asked as he walked through the front door if he could smell something burning! And that wasn’t even the only injury he sustained that day.

His reward for such an apocalypse on the body? A paltry $300 and a can of soda as a ‘bonus.’ It is at such moments one might start to question the decisions they made that brought them to such an undistinguished position.

For Cactus Jack, one such decision might have been to quit WCW in 1994. The company never really saw the potential or the money in Cactus and had effectively blown off what could have been a very profitable feud with Big Van Vader. To salvage some sort of artistic integrity, a bold motivation for a wrestler in 1994, Cactus handed in his notice but this also came with some painful sacrifices.

He had to relocate his family to a new area where they had no roots, to a much smaller house. Working the independent scene would mean much less money and no guarantee of a set income, as money earned would depend on the number of dates he could pick up and the amount they paid and it wouldn’t be much. Cactus had almost become wrestling’s version of the starving artist, just in a ring instead of a garret. The thought had run through his head: should he have stayed in WCW and taken the money? Was his artistic integrity worth so much degradation to his health, his wage, and his family life?

All of this was playing on the mind of Cactus when he was looking for motivation for his heel turn. And then he remembered: ‘Cane Dewey.’

He’s (Anti)Hardcore!

It was quite an innocuous thing, a sign written and intended by a fan to be cynically ironic, a bad joke at best. The signwriter has since confirmed as much and apologized for it, and Mick Foley has made his peace with the man. But the legitimate hurt it caused inspired one of the greatest promos the wrestling business has ever seen.

Dewey Foley, Mick Foley’s real-life son, was only three years old in 1995. And earlier in the year, Mick’s wife Collette saw a sign in the crowd at the arena that made her feel sick: ‘Cane Dewey.’ This was an ironic reference to another wrestler, The Sandman, and his ever-present Singapore cane, with which he regularly gave his opponents a good beating. But even the carnage-crazed Philadelphia audience wouldn’t want to see a three-year-old get caned—one hopes anyway! It was in poor taste, sure, but it wasn’t to be taken seriously.

Mick knew this but the more he thought about it, the more of a window it gave him into the hardcore audience and its demands and values. How far was too far? What should an audience expect a wrestler to reasonably give of his body? Is it even worth it to be King of the Hill if you’re only a big fish in a small pond, your body battered, the pay-off minute? Mick only had to look at his burnt-brown, peeling arm and the paltry payoff he received to suggest that it might not be worth it at all, that the extreme audience demanded far too much from its wrestlers.

Mick Foley has since said this about the turning point in his thoughts and how he linked them back to motivating the heel turn on Tommy Dreamer:

“I remembered what “Freebird” Michael Hayes had told me about being an effective heel. “In his mind, a heel has to feel his actions are justified. It doesn’t matter how far out his motives-as long as he feels he’s right!” I thought about the bloodthirsty ECW fans. I thought of how tough it was to please them and how important it was to Tommy to do so. I remembered a story about Tommy turning down a WCW offer because he wanted to be hardcore, and I wondered if maybe I should have shut my mouth and kept collecting my three grand a week. I looked at my arm, which was still raw, and the scars from my stitches that had just been removed. Then I thought about the months-old sign in the stands, and how it had made my wife’s stomach turn. A light bulb went on in my head. I had found my reason.” [5]

In a lot of ways, it was like an actor trying to bring a character to life by putting something of themselves in there, giving flesh and blood to the illustration. The torment to his body, the low unstable wages, the demands of the audience: Cactus Jack would use this to launch an anti-hardcore persona, one that was trying to beat some sense into Tommy Dreamer to not make the same mistakes Cactus Jack had made, to not care about the hardcore audience because he would have to kill himself in the ring before they would accept him. All Tommy had to do was go to WCW and take the easy money, like Cactus failed to do, and he would be saved.

It was a genius move. What could be more of a heel move than being anti-hardcore in Philadelphia? Not only that but explicitly making the fans and their actions culpable in such a change of heart. The heat Cactus gained from just a little thought and attention to character was immense.

With two simple words, ‘Cane Dewey,’ a whole chain of thought had been launched that would bring a complexity and authenticity to a wrestler’s motivation that had not been seen in the business before. Both innovative and captivating, you can see its influence seep into wrestling very quickly after: from Eric Bischoff’s jibes at WWE on WCW Nitro and having Medusa put the WWE women’s title in the bin live on air, to Brian Pillman’s infamous ECW debut rant at Bischoff himself, from Hulk Hogan’s famous heel turn to Austin 3:16 and especially CM Punk’s ‘pipe bomb,’ the ‘Cane Dewey’ promo changed the way character and motivation were thought about in wrestling, and it has gone down as one of the greatest promos of all time.

A transcript can be found here, but please do check out the promo itself below. A large part of the pleasure is the performance itself, as the intensity Cactus speaks with is truly a spine-tingling thing of wonder.

Bang Bang!



[1] Williams, Scott E. Hardcore History: The Extremely Unauthorized Story of ECW. New York, NY Sports Publishing, [2016] ©2011

[2] The Rise and Fall of ECW, Documentary, 2004.

[3] Foley, Mick. Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. New York, NY: Regan Books, 2000.

[4] Foley, Mick. Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. New York, NY: Regan Books, 2000.

[5] Foley, Mick. Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks. New York, NY: Regan Books, 2000.

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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