This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of WWE’s most successful and polarising figures of all time, Triple H. In a career spanning 25 years, there is bound to be some good, some bad, and some ugly, but at the end of the day, 25 years in the professional wrestling business in an achievement few ever reach. In my opinion, Triple H became a “Superstar” a little over 20 years ago in a match in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden. The night, January 23, 2000. The opponent, Cactus Jack. I was 13-years old when this match happened and while I was excited, I did not know that this night would become a historic one and that it would have an everlasting impact on the career of Triple H.
By the year 2000, Triple H had been in World Wrestling Entertainment for five years and was beginning to peak. He was in great shape, he hadn’t suffered his torn quadriceps yet, he had the hot manager – he was a total package. Yet, for one reason or another, fans didn’t see him in the same light as some of the top echelon stars of that era, however, that was about to change. Across the ring from Trips was one of wrestling’s most respected and beloved figures, Cactus Jack. In almost every way imaginable the two men were complete opposites. Cactus was not a perfectly built physical specimen, he did not have a hot manager, he was more “common” in appearance than Triple H, yet between those ropes and on the microphone, Mick Foley was anything but common.
This was not the first time the two men would cross paths, it wasn’t even their first time wrestling in Madison Square Garden. Triple H and Mick Foley had a lengthy feud just three years prior and ironically it was in this rivalry with Triple H where fans of the then World Wrestling Federation would see the debut of Cactus Jack. There was something about Triple H and Cactus Jack, despite being different in every conceivable way, together they always produced good to great matches, and the stage was set for them to do something historic on this night, and they delivered in a major way.
Triple H had been reigning supreme as the Heavyweight Champion and with the backing of the boss’ daughter, Stephanie McMahon, he was among the most despised figures in the business. In the ring, Triple H was a fierce, powerful technician more of a finesse wrestler, Cactus Jack? Well, he was the epitome of hardcore wrestling. Triple H and Stephanie had spent the last two months trying to rid the WWE of any potential adversaries to Triple H’s title, this led to them making a match between The Rock and Mankind. The object was to climb the pole and grab a pink slip if you did, your opponent would be fired. This was a way for them to eliminate one of the top contenders to Hunter’s title reign. The Rock would begrudgingly win the match but just one week later essentially hold the company hostage, forcing them to rehire Mick Foley. With Mick back in the fold, Triple set his sights on forcing him out of the business one way or another.
Triple H filmed skits with an imposter Mankind where he would belittle and humiliate the man portraying Mankind, all in an attempt to get inside the twisted mind of Mankind. This came to a head one night on an episode of Monday Night Raw where Triple H, as Mick was beating down the imposter Mankind would assault Mick, hitting him in the head with a ring bell and savagely beating him down. This would be a grave mistake on Triple H’s part as he would expose some weaknesses in Mankind and Mick Foley knew that Mankind was not going to be able to beat Triple H in a street fight in Madison Square Garden. On the following episode of Smackdown, Mick Foley would reintroduce the world, and specifically, Triple H to Cactus Jack.
The match began at a slow pace, even causing a “boring” chant to ring throughout The Garden in the first minutes of the match as the rabid New York audience wanted blood and violence. Jack and HHH brawled into the aisle which was set up like an alleyway and Hunter proceeded to smash Cactus’ head into the aluminium doors of the entrance ramp. Back at ringside, Hunter hip tossed Cactus onto the steel steps, causing Jack’s legs to crash against the corners of the stairs. After some more fighting in and around the ring, Cactus grabs a 2×4 wrapped in barbed wire from underneath the ring and this brought the crowd to their feet for the first time in the match.
Jack attempted to use the barbed wire on Hunter but got countered, which led to Jack getting the barbed wire in the gut, then across the back. The referee removed the barbed wire from the ring and got booed heavily for it. Cactus regained the upper hand on Triple H and while The Game was down, Cactus threatened the official to tell him where he put his barbed wire 2×4. Jack retrieved his weapon after attacking the Spanish commentators since they had it “hidden” underneath their table. Back inside the ring, Cactus used the board on Triple H, ripping him open from ear to ear and in just a few short seconds the face of Triple H was a crimson mask.
The match gained momentum from this point on, with each man upping the brutality. Cactus would deliver a stump puller piledriver onto the commentators’ table and Triple H would respond by getting a pair of handcuffs and cuffing Cactus’ hands behind him, a throwback to Mankind’s match with The Rock at the previous years Royal Rumble. Triple H would taunt the cuffed Jack as he held a steel chair in his hand, but the courageous Jack would not back down. Triple H stood his ground, slamming the chair into Jack several times, causing a piece of the chair to go flying into the crowd at one point. Cactus would manage to fight back, despite being handcuffed, was able to drop a toe-hold.
Cactus rolled out of the ring and staggered up the aisle way and Triple H followed him. Before Triple H can deliver another chair shot onto Jack, The Rock came out, hits Triple H with a chair, and has a cop remove the cuffs from Cactus. Back in the ring, Jack had Triple H down yet again and instead of going for a cover, he went outside and grabbed a sack from beneath the ring. There was a buzz throughout the Garden, and sure enough, Jack emptied the contents of the sack and it was full of thumbtacks.
This brought out a genuinely concerned Stephanie McMahon, concerned for Hunter’s well-being. Cactus intimidated Stephanie but this distraction allowed Triple H to regain the advantage and deliver a pedigree, however, Jack kicked out at two. Triple H, shocked and angered delivered one more Pedigree, this time into the thumbtacks for the victory.
Medical personnel came out and attempted to get Triple H onto a stretcher but a dejected Cactus Jack was not going to let Hunter get off that easy. Cactus beat up the EMT’s and referees and grabbed a stretchered Triple H, wheeling him back down to the ring. With his face covered in dry blood, a staggered Triple H got back to his feet unsure of where he was, and Cactus delivered one last shot with a barbed wire-wrapped 2×4. Feeling satisfied with the damage and destruction he’d caused, Cactus walked out of the arena defeated, but we knew this was not the last time Triple H and Cactus Jack would meet inside the squared circle.
The following month, Cactus Jack and Triple H would face off one more time inside Hell in a Cell. Triple H would win that match and “retire” Mick Foley, who would be in another match just three weeks later. The street fight at Madison Square Garden to this day remains one of, if not Triple H’s best matches, and was truly a breakout performance. This match and Foley’s willingness to elevate his opponent solidified Triple H as a big-time player in the WWE. While Triple H always had all the tools, he just needed that one opponent and/or match to give him that extra push in the fan’s eyes. In a career spanning 25 years with so many classic battles, this remains my personal favourite Triple H match of all time.
All images and video courtesy of WWE