Many years ago, I wrote a series of columns that I called the Greatest Matches in Wrestling History. One of the matches I wrote about took place at the 2000 Royal Rumble, so I figured with the Royal Rumble taking place one week from today, it was a good time to share this with all of you. I originally wrote this in 2003, re-posted on the old site in 2010 and here it is again in 2018.
Is it the best match in Royal Rumble history? It might be. I love it, and I’m going to let you know why.
Who: Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Cactus Jack for the WWF Heavyweight Title
What: Royal Rumble
When: January 23, 2000
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York, New York
During the summer of 1999, Triple H was on the receiving end of a big main event push. He won his first WWF on Raw in August, the night after Summerslam. The man he defeated in that match was Mick Foley. He went on to lose the WWF in a fluke match against Vince McMahon. After McMahon forfeited the title, Triple H won a Six-Pack Challenge match for the WWF Title at Unforgiven in September. Two months later, Hunter lost it to the Big Show in a triple threat match that also featured The Rock. At Armageddon, the December PPV, he defeated McMahon in a street fight thanks to his “wife” Stephanie turning against her father to help Triple H win the match.
After starting off 1999 in the main event picture, Mick “Mankind” Foley dealt with a lot of injuries to close out the year. He returned from minor knee surgery as a surprise entrant in the SummerSlam main event where he won the WWF Title. Following that brief run that lasted one day, the number of matches he had started to dwindle. Foley formed The Rock ‘n Sock Connection with The Rock while having a mini-angle with Al Snow. That storyline carried over for several months although there was never a big payoff match, much to the dismay of many fans and Foley himself. By the end of 1999, Foley was considering retirement. It would happen soon, but before he went away, there was a masterful angle that needed to happen.
December 27th, 1999 on RAW: Triple H and Stephanie McMahon were the on-air owners on WWF TV at this point. To prove how much power they yielded, Triple H & Stephanie made The Rock and Mankind have a “pink slip on a pole” match where the person that lost the match would be fired. Mankind had the match won when Al Snow interfered on his behalf. Mankind refused to climb the pole to end the match because he wanted to win on his own. The Rock eventually won the match and Mankind was fired.
For the next couple of shows, Triple H and fake Mankind (played by Dennis Knight aka Mideon) did skits that humiliated Mick Foley. Looking back, some of them were pretty funny because Knight did an excellent job of imitating Foley. Even though he was gone, he was not forgotten.
January 3rd on RAW: Triple H defeated The Big Show to become the WWF Champion. It was the unofficial dawning of the McMahon/Helmsley era.
January 10th on Raw: The Rock stands in the middle of the ring with the other wrestlers standing on the outside. He tells Triple H that everybody will walk out unless he reinstates Mick Foley. Triple H, without another option, does that. When Foley comes back, he challenges Triple H to a streetfight at the Royal Rumble for the world title. Later in that same show, in an eight-man tag match, Triple H destroys Mankind with a ring bell shot to the face and a Pedigree through the announce table. He ended up pinning Foley in that match. Foley was a bloody mess after the beating.
January 13th on Smackdown: Triple H is in the ring along with fake Mankind bragging about what happened on Raw. Mick Foley comes out to say that Mankind wasn’t ready to fight Triple H at the Royal Rumble. However, he knew somebody that was ready. His name is Cactus Jack. It was a very memorable promo. Triple H fled the scene while Cactus Jack beat up fake Mankind.
January 20th on Smackdown: Cactus Jack finally gets his hands on Triple H. He finishes the beating off with a piledriver on the announce table that doesn’t break it. The last image before the Royal Rumble was Triple H taking the piledriver on the table.
The stage was set.
Cactus Jack was ready to challenge Triple H for the WWF Heavyweight Title in a Street Fight at the Royal Rumble.
Here’s the promo that aired to set up the match:
Cactus Jack is introduced first to a pretty big face pop. He’s wearing the usual ‘Wanted’ shirt along with black pants and snakeskin boots. Triple H comes out next with Stephanie McMahon, and he is in his black shorts along with kneepads and black boots. He’s also got a big white bandage on his left leg. Interesting that he gave Howard Finkel a black bag telling him to hold it for him. Triple H didn’t have the water spit as a regular part of his act at the time. He sort of walks on the apron and spits it out without a huge pose. Triple H sends Steph away before it begins.
After a staredown won by Cactus, he starts with punches to the head. Hunter bails to the outside, and Cactus catches him with a neckbreaker on the floor. Hunter tries to climb back in, but he is hit with a leg drop to the back of the head. Cactus nails him with the ring steps followed by the ring bell. Hunter recovers with the bell to the head. Back in the ring, Hunter’s got the chair and Cactus charges him only to get drilled in the head with a SICK chair shot. After Hunter stalls a bit, Cactus takes him down and drops a leg on his face that is covered by the chair for the first two count of the match. As they head to the outside, JR calls Triple H “maybe the greatest technical WWF champion of all time.” Bret Hart who? On the floor, Cactus backdrops HHH over the railing sending him into the crowd. They brawl through the crowd making their way over to the entryway. Cactus stacks two wooden palettes (about eight pieces of wood on each) and suplexes HHH on them. This is where HHH gets a huge gash in his left calf. It was pretty disgusting. When I watched it in slow motion, you can see his leg hitting hard against the wood. Trashcan to the head by Cactus followed by some head slamming into the door. Hunter reverses a move into a back suplex that makes Cactus land with the back of his head on the trashcan. Hunter’s leg is bleeding like crazy now, and he’s touching it trying to see if anything is sticking out. Don’t watch this after you’ve eaten. Clothesline by Triple H but Cactus recovers to whip him headfirst into the steps. That’s followed up with the patented running knee by Cactus, this time on the steel steps. Bang! Bang! That’s what Cactus just said.
Cactus rolls HHH back in and finds the barbed wire 2×4 under the ring to a huge pop from the crowd. Low blow by HHH. HHH nails Cactus to the stomach and the back. One more time. He waits too long so Cactus gets a gutshot followed by the 2×4 into HHH’s nuts. The referee gives the 2×4 to the Spanish announce team while Cactus nails HHH with the double arm DDT for a very long two. Cactus wants the 2×4, Hebner says no and then says, “the Spanish guys stole it.” What a racist! Okay, maybe he didn’t say exactly that, but Cactus punches the announcer and gets his sacred piece of barbed wire. Back in the ring, Hunter runs into Hebner, and Jack nails him in the face with the 2×4 to a thunderous pop. Cactus nails the elbow drop with 2×4 in hand while the camera closes in on HHH’s damaged face. The blood is flowing now. What an excellent blade job. Cactus covers, Hebner comes to for the 1, 2, no. Just two. The crowd thought that was it. Cactus grinds the wire in HHH’s face in a cool spot that the crowd loves. Outside, Cactus works over the wound with more fists as we get more shots of HHH’s face. His hair is covered in red now, most of it anyway. Cactus clears off the English announce table. He is going for a piledriver, but Triple H reverses it into a backdrop through the table. Another sick bump. Foley is God.
In the ring, Hunter goes for the Pedigree that Cactus reverses into a slingshot to the turnbuckle. Hunter bounces off leading to a facebuster into the barbwire for two. That was a cool spot. I think I just heard Cactus say “clothesline” to HHH. Yep, there it is sending them to the outside. Cactus charges at him like an idiot, which leads to a DISGUSTING hiptoss that Cactus takes legs first into the ring steps. Foley! Foley! Foley! You damn right. Since that wasn’t sick enough, Hunter throws him into the ring steps knee first and Cactus takes the bump over the steps landing on his back right in front of the announce table. What a freak. Hunter chop blocks (shoulder block to the back of the knee) the left knee. Meanwhile, Jim Ross calls HHH a stud. Who told him to say that? Pat Patterson? Triple H tells Finkel to give him the bag, and we soon discover that there are handcuffs in there. We are reminded of the previous year’s Rumble where Mick Foley took twelve chair shots to the head after being handcuffed by the Rock. He tries to cuff him but is knocked down. Hunter goes back to the knee with a kick, and then he handcuffs him. That’s the last time he focused on the knee. My only gripe in the match is that they forgot about the injured knee. Ah, who the hell cares about the knee? This match rules! The crowd is going nuts now.
Hunter brings in the ring steps. In another perfect spot, Cactus reverses the charge with a drop toehold that leads to HHH eating the steps. Cactus gets a boot to the face and headbutt low blow. After some biting by Cactus (in the head, not in the low blow region), HHH gets in control with a clothesline. Chair to the gut bends Cactus over, and those are followed up by two shots to the back that sends him rolling to the outside. Near the entryway, Triple H gets a good shot to the head. As HHH is winding up for another swing with the chair, The Rock emerges from the entrance and hits HHH in the head with a chair to a thunderous pop. That was such a cool moment and a cool way of remembering the year before. A cop comes out to unlock the cuffs, freeing Cactus. Good work, Chief Wiggum.
Cactus gets his second wind now by throwing Triple H onto the Spanish announce table. He nails him with a stump piledriver (that’s when he pulls the trunks for more impact), but the table does not break. Viva Espanol! Somewhere a Spanish guy is probably saying that the English are not as strong as the Spanish. Cactus rolls him in the ring and grabs a bag from under the ring. We don’t know what they are until he dumps it revealing hundreds of thumbtacks that he litters in the corner of the ring. Steph comes out to overact. I mean she comes out to show concern for her husband. After some punches, Triple H is standing right in front of the tacks. Like an idiot (again), Cactus charges at him and gets backdropped straight onto the thumbtacks in another SICK moment. What was cool is that the crowd started to gasp as soon as he charged at Hunter because they knew it was coming. Cactus rolls around in the tacks for a disgusting visual. Triple H hits him with a kick and Pedigree for 1…2…2.999999. Ooh, the crowd thought that was it. Good false finish. This time Triple H does the Pedigree with Jack landing FACE FIRST ON THE TACKS! Man, Foley is nuts. He rules. 1…2…3. Two Pedigrees, the second one on the tacks, and that’s it. Foley has tacks all around his face, actually cutting him open a bit. This was one of the best finishes of a big match that I’ve ever seen. Match time was 26:48.
Winner by pinfall: Triple H
Post match, Triple H is on a stretcher. Cactus gets up in time to chase him down, take him off the stretcher, roll him back into the ring and beat him up some more with a barbwire shot to the face. The crowd was still going nuts. They had them in the palm of their hands the entire time.
MATCH RATING: I’m going ***** out of five with it. No doubt about it. A great story mixed in with all the violence and a match where Triple H raised his game (pun intended) to compete at the highest level with Mick Foley, who was a master at brawls like this. There’s more analysis below.
DVD Extra: Triple H is lying on a table getting the big gash in his left leg checked out by the doctors. He tells some guy to go into the crowd to tell his parents that he’s okay. What a good son. Doctor asks where he hurt it and he says on the wooden palettes. Good memory. A doctor stitches up his leg. Ugh. It’s not a pleasant sight. That’s all for the extra.
Following the Royal Rumble, the feud between Triple H & Cactus Jack continued. Cactus asked Triple H for another shot at the world title. Triple H agreed, on one condition: If Cactus lost then he would have to retire. Cactus agreed to that, adding that the match will take place within the confines of the Hell in a Cell. Triple H won that match, retiring Cactus Jack in the process. Foley would come back for one last match at WrestleMania although he wrestled under the Mick Foley name (and earned a lot of dollars for that one match). There were more matches for Foley, but this was the end of his run as a full-timer.
Triple H went on to have one of the best years ever in 2000 with great matches against a variety of different opponents and main eventing more PPVs than anybody. After retiring at WrestleMania 2000, Foley came back as the commissioner of the WWF in 2000 and did a damn good job at it.
WHAT THEY THOUGHT
Triple H: “This might be my favorite match. Both Mick and I had a great night. We were able to do a gimmick match, a hardcore match, and tell a story with it. That’s something that many people don’t do. Most guys just go out there with pots and pans and hit each other in the head, but that’s not what we did.
Mick knew he was winding down, and he wanted to go out on a high note. He wanted to go out in a big way. We made a completely new character out of Cactus Jack. Mick had been Cactus Jack before, but in just a few weeks of buildup for the Rumble, we created this mythical, god-like being out of Cactus Jack. And we were able to do a lot of incredible things.
The setup for this match was so good that I was a little bit nervous going into it, thinking, ‘How are we going to follow this hype? How the hell are we gonna do this?’ But as soon as I got out to the arena, I knew that we were gonna have a great one.
We accomplished a lot of things. It silenced a lot of my critics. I think it was a match where people stood up and took notice of Triple H as someone above the norm. And I think it gave Cactus Jack the platform that he wanted to go out on. It’s one of my favorite moments in the business.” (Credit: The Game magazine.)
Mick Foley: “For the first time in years I felt like I was in shape when I stepped into the ring in Madison Square Garden for the Royal Rumble. I had been training hard and I knew I was prepared.
I walked back into the dressing area twenty-seven minutes later with a half-dozen thumbtacks stuck in the temple area of my head, barbed-wire holes in my back and stomach, sweat pouring out of my body, and a feeling of total professional redemption. I wish it had been my last match. It was that good. Triple H was at his absolute best here, and I was only a small step behind. The Rumble match was a brutal, beautiful, emotional affair, and in many ways was like a dream come true.
The Royal Rumble match was a success on the rarest of levels. The challenger (me) had come away being more over than when he went in, and the champion was a better champion. We were able to help ‘make’ each other.” (Credit: Mick Foley in Foley is Good.)
The best kinds of matches are the ones where both competitors have something to prove. For Triple H, he had to show that he was worthy of the big main event push that he was receiving. For Cactus Jack, he had to prove that he still had enough in the tank to put on a great match.
Was Triple H capable enough to carry his end of a streetfight against the man that many considered to be the greatest brawler ever? Did Mick Foley have another classic match in him after wrestling very little in the months leading up to this match? The answer to both of those questions was yes. A resounding yes.
There were so many things that made this match great. , This match was the perfect example of intelligent storytelling meshing together perfectly with two performers that did their job as well as humanly possible. Four elements made this match memorable that they are all worth talking about in detail.
Triple H’s left leg: If you’ve seen the match you know about the gash that he received in his left calf muscle. It was a deep cut that occurred when he was suplexed on a stack of wooden palettes. He went on to wrestle the entire match even though he had a noticeable limp the whole time. This wasn’t the plan, yet he managed to endure the pain and finish the match strongly. He deserves props for completing this match despite the massive wound that he had in his leg.
Barb Wire: I may be incorrect here, but I believe that Mick Foley bringing barb wire into the match was the first in the WWF. I don’t recall any match in WWF history where barbwire was used before. I know that he used them in Japan, but never in the WWF. The barb wire bat played a significant role in the match as the most dangerous weapon that was out there. In Mick Foley’s book, Foley is Good, he writes about how they used two bats in the match. One was real while the other was gimmicked. That one was used when he got it from the Spanish announcers. The use of the bat helped the legend of this match because every time it was used, or almost used, the crowd popped like crazy. When Cactus finally connected with the barbwire to the face of Triple H it sounded as if the Garden was ready to explode. It was a crucial ingredient in the success of this match.
Handcuffs: Another big factor was the use of the handcuffs. I don’t think anybody that has seen Mankind vs. The Rock from Royal Rumble ’99 will forget the scene with the handcuffs. A year later, they tried to recreate the image. As I said in the write-up of the match, the crowd reacted to the cuffs went as well as both guys probably hoped. It was a wise move to do this because it was still fresh in the minds of the fans. Plus, it proved that Triple H had to go to desperate measures to beat the “crazy man” Cactus Jack. The first couple of chair shots were nasty, but they were nothing compared to when The Rock came out of nowhere to drill Triple H with a chair shot of his own. That was another great spot that was perfectly timed leading to a big ovation from the crowd.
Thumbtacks: Another choice of weapon straight from Mick Foley’s WWF past. Fans that remember the King of the Ring ’98 Hell in a Cell match with The Undertaker will recall that an unconscious Foley, playing Mankind, used them in that match. Using them in this match proved that Cactus Jack would do anything to win the match. He tried everything from a barbwire bat to a piledriver through the table, but it didn’t work. When he littered the ring with the thumbtacks the crowd expected that to be the end for Triple H. As it turned out, it was the end of Cactus. After a sick backdrop in the tacks, he took a Pedigree. He found a way to kick out of that before finally losing the match thanks to the final Pedigree on the tacks. A terrific finish to a great match.
A lot of times when there are great matches we can point to one person being in control most of the time. We call it a “carry job” most of the time. This match did not have that. This was about as even a match that you can have. If somebody were timing how long each person was on offense during the match, I’d venture to guess that it was pretty even, or Triple H was slightly ahead. What that means is that both guys worked their asses off. Both guys bumped hard. Both guys got the crowd to react to them in the way they intended. Both guys sacrificed their bodies to put on a special match. Both guys deserve praise for this performance.
When I think of what Triple H did in this match it amazes me. Before this match took place a lot of people, myself included, wondered how good he was. Was he just a guy on the receiving end of a massive main event push that wrestled like a midcarder or could he become the best in the business? This match was the first one that opened the eyes of a lot of critics, myself included. He showed a lot in this match. From his impeccable timing to his manly blade job to his ability to get people to hate him, he proved his worth. I think he knew how important this match was to him. It was a test. A test against one of the greatest wrestlers ever in a setting that was familiar to his opponent more than it was to him. If this were a test I’d give him an A+ for a job well done. While it’s true that Foley did help Triple H become a better brawler because of this match, Triple H deserves credit for having what is arguably the greatest match of his career at a time when he needed it the most. Famed NFL announcer John Madden likes to say “big players make big plays in big games.” In the case of Triple H, this player played big in the biggest match of his career.
Before the Rumble, Mick Foley’s Mankind character was a funny guy that didn’t wrestle a whole lot. Injuries had finally caught up with him to the point where he was an average worker. He slowed down a step. When I heard he was thinking about retiring I thought it was a good idea because he was not the same guy. Thankfully, he stuck around to provide us with this long-lasting memory. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Foley better than he was during this match. Yes, he kept up with Shawn Michaels at a hectic pace during Mind Games ’96, but I like this match more. The reason is that more elements came into play here. As I mentioned before, the items (barb wire, thumbtacks) that Cactus used fit the match, and his character, perfectly. It showed how desperate he was to not only win the WWF Title but to gain revenge on Triple H for all the pain he caused him leading up to the match. For one night (and a month later at No Way Out) the insane bumping machine Mick Foley we had come to respect was back and we loved every second of it.
By the end of the match, both guys looked a lot better than when they entered the ring. Sure, Triple H had blood all over his face, and Cactus Jack had tacks in his face, but I don’t think either of them complained too much. Triple H gained a lot of credibility as World Champion because he defeated a man cleanly in his specialty match. Cactus Jack proved that he could hang with a hungry, young champion. Even though he lost, Cactus came out of the match looking like a champion.
This match had everything that makes wrestling great: A lot of heat, tremendous psychology, a high level of workrate, a rabid crowd and two men that did a wonderful job of making the other guy look good.
It is one of the greatest matches in WWE history. No doubt about it.
It was that damn good. Bang! Bang! (Lame, I know. Couldn’t help it.)
Thanks to both Triple H and Mick “Cactus Jack” Foley for giving us a match that we will never forget.
Let me know what you thought of the match and the article in the comments below. Want more articles like this from me? Feedback is always welcome.