Mick Foley's 1st WWE Championship Win a Reminder of When Raw Was at Its Best

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterDecember 30, 2017

Credit: WWE.com

The night Mick Foley first hoisted the WWE Championship in celebration, electricity surged through the arena, through the TV screen and through the veins of the wrestling world. Today's WWE Raw, even at its best, hasn't been able to match that wattage.

When Mrs. Foley's baby boy completed his underdog climb and bested The Rock for the world title on the episode of Raw that aired on Jan. 4, 1999, the show was a different beast.

Raw wasn't in the midst of a trumped-up brand war with SmackDown Live; it was fighting for its life against WCW Monday Nitro every week. The battle for ratings was a slugfest—a back-and-forth struggle with big-time financial implications.

The country's two top wrestling promotions went head-to-head every Monday. The Monday Night War had WWE chairman Vince McMahon in a most unfamiliar position: second place.

Nitro, at one point, smacked Raw around. WWE had to bring its best writing and produce its best product to compete. There were no off days, and there was no slow period. Competition forced Raw to be as sharp as possible, and that showed.

Today, WWE can afford to put together a so-so Raw. There is no wrestling outfit chasing it down. Impact Wrestling is too far behind to be significant in that regard.

In late 1998, Raw surpassed Nitro in viewership. WWE kept that advantage, putting WCW in a headlock from which it could not escape. As Octavio Fierros of PWTorch wrote: "WWE won every battle beginning with the November 2nd edition of Raw that year."

On Jan. 4, though, WCW remained cocky.

Using a familiar trick, Nitro spoiled the taped Raw's results. Commentator Tony Schiavone told fans that Foley, as Mankind, would win the WWE title that night. "That's gonna put some butts in the seats," he joked.

Famously, a number of fans switched over to Raw to see that unfold.

Mankind faced The Rock in a No Disqualification match in the night's main event. Announcer Michael Cole played up the uphill nature of the challenger's journey. He painted a picture of Mankind as the centerpiece of a Cinderella story.

D-Generation X first surrounded the ring. The Corporation, supporting The Rock, soon followed. Future Hall of Famers loomed before the bout began.

Watching this moment is a reminder of how much WWE relied on factions during the Attitude Era. 

The Union, The Corporate Ministry, The Hart Foundation and The Nation of Domination all roamed the landscape during this period. This approach allowed more stars to be involved in stories. It also created what felt like gang warfare on Raw.

There was a sense chaos was bubbling under the surface at all times.

The Rock joins forces with the McMahons.
The Rock joins forces with the McMahons.Credit: WWE.com

The way the bout progressed was indicative of that aura. A wild, revved-up crowd saw The Rock choke his opponent with audio cables. The two men crashed into the stands. Foley grabbed a headset and delivered his own commentary mid-fight.

The factions came into the foreground near the climax. Ken Shamrock cracked a steel chair against Mankind's back, inspiring D-Generation X to pounce on the former UFC fighter. Fists flew at ringside as a brawl erupted.

And in the middle of it all, the sound of glass breaking indicated that a megastar was on his way.

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin came marching down the entrance ramp to assist Mankind. He knocked out The Rock with a chair shot and slid Foley's lifeless body atop the champion. 

The explosive audience reaction Austin garnered upon his arrival is something we simply don't see today. There has been a long line of popular stars on Raw, but nobody has matched that kind of pop. 

At his apex, Daniel Bryan was close, but concussions pulled him out of the ring, and he's forced to be an on-screen authority figure rather than a wrestler.

Today's Raw doesn't have a star who connects like Austin. It doesn't have that single figure who moves the needle how he did, who had fans becoming unglued at just the sight of him.

The actual in-ring action was nothing special. The match didn't even last nine minutes, per CageMatch.net

People don't remember it for the counters and the moves, though. It resonated because of its narrative. And that's one key difference between Attitude Era Raw and New Era Raw. Today's in-ring product is superior from an action standpoint, but the stories of the matches haven't hit as deeply as Mankind's quest or Austin's blood feud with Mr. McMahon.

Because of Austin, the supporting players, the energy and the story of the underdog finally claiming gold, Mankind's win lives on as one of Raw's greatest moments. And it will always be remembered for its part in putting away WCW in the clash over ratings.

While Raw featured a stirring drama that crowned a new champ, WCW was busy screwing around with The Fingerpoke of Doom

Jesse Holland of Cageside Seats wrote of Mankind vs. The Rock's impact: "While there exists a laundry list of reasons why WCW lost control of the Monday Night Wars, it's hard not see this as the straw that broke the camel's back."

The victory came at a cost. Eventually, WCW had to sell to its rival. And when WWE's chief competitor failed to exist, so too did that sense of urgency that drove the show. You can't manufacture that need to beat the other guy every week and the creativity that comes with overwhelming pressure. 

Moving forward, Raw will have to try to match the magic of Foley's crowning achievement without that impetus.