When most people hear the phrase “professional wrestling”, they instantly think of three letters: WWE. Many also think of the great performers of the past, such as Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Others may recall various tragedies involving stars, such as Owen Hart’s accidental fall, Eddie Guerrero’s untimely heart attack or Chris Benoit’s murder/suicide. Only one larger-than-life figure transcends these peaks and valleys. He is the man who has been the face and voice most associated with the expansion of pro wrestling from a regional sideshow into a worldwide entertainment juggernaut: Vincent Kennedy McMahon.
McMahon has devoted his life, his fortune and his family to the world of pro wrestling. He has combated media conglomerates, censorship advocates and even the United States Department of Justice to bring his vision of overly muscled men and scantily clad women locked in eternal mock combat for our amusement. His drive and determination have allowed him to defeat all of his major rivals and to stand alone atop his industry.
Given all of this, how can anyone say Vince McMahon hates the very thing that has given him his measure of fame and fortune?
For McMahon, being the undisputed king of pro wrestling does not give him the one thing that all of his money, power and fame could: respect. In fact, he has taken several steps over the years to earn respect from the mainstream sports and entertainment media, often to the detriment of his core product.
Long before Vince McMahon became the ruler of the wrestling ring, most fans of the “sport” understood that what they were watching was more about performance than competition. McMahon’s approach, however, was to tilt the balance further toward overarching theatrics and away from anything resembling legitimate combat. During the 1980’s, many of McMahon’s performers admitted to using anabolic steroids, including the biggest “hero” of them all, Hulk Hogan. As McMahon’s stars got bigger, so did his show business aspirations.
In his promotional efforts before the first “WrestleMania”, Hulk Hogan and his tag team partner, TV star Mr. T, appeared on Saturday Night Live. His Women’s Champion, Wendi Richter, appeared with singer Cyndi Lauper on MTV. Later he would produce a Saturday morning animated series featuring characters such as Hogan, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, The Iron Sheik, and the Junkyard Dog. Even at this low rung on the entertainment ladder, McMahon knew that he preferred working with the showbiz suits rather than the muscular meat puppets whose strings he pulled.
“Superstars of Sports Entertainment”
The traditional practice, known as “kayfabe”, was for promoters, announcers and wrestlers to maintain their characters and storylines both inside and outside the ring. In some promotions, “good guys” were not allowed to travel or stay in the same hotel as “bad guys” for fear of suspension, fines or termination as well as to maintain the illusion of true animosity between the characters.
In an effort to avoid paying taxes to the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, Vince McMahon single-handedly destroyed that tradition. McMahon announced that he was no longer going to “insult the viewer’s intelligence” and let the audience know that the matches were scripted and that the outcomes were predetermined. This announcement essentially allowed his audience a look behind the curtain at precisely how the magician pulled off his tricks.
As a result, McMahon instituted a 1984-style “newspeak” into his shows. Wrestlers were now “performers” or “superstars”. Matches were no longer violent; they were “physically intense”. No injury ever resulted in a trip to the hospital; the injured party visited a “local medical facility”.
TV announcers were encouraged (often by McMahon yelling into their broadcast headsets) to play up storylines rather than comment on the actual physical activity taking place in the ring. In his attempts to gain a slice of mainstream media attention, he often cut out the hardcore fans of even this heavily diluted product.
In 2002, McMahon’s company, then known as World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc., lost a British lawsuit brought by the World Wildlife Fund over the use of the initials “WWF”. The court found that the company had violated the terms of a 1994 agreement between the two organizations in how to use these three letters in McMahon’s attempts to grow his brand overseas. As a result, McMahon changed the company’s name to “World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.” and its famous initials to “WWE”.
Since 1979, through its 1980s “Golden Age” and its 1990s “Attitude Era”, the initials “WWF” were nearly synonymous with professional wrestling. Again, McMahon showed that he was willing to sacrifice his company and his livelihood in the name of “entertainment”.
“Bodybuilding, Football and Movies”
Not content with the typical merchandising of his “superstars” into action figures, T-shirts and video games, McMahon still felt that he had more to offer the larger world of mainstream sports and entertainment. In 1991, he started the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF). He intended to be a direct competitor to the empire of bodybuilding guru Joe Wieder, founder of the Mr. Olympia contest. The WBF, with its character-based presentation similar to that of its wrestling sister company, failed in under eighteen months, primarily since McMahon himself was under investigation for steroid distribution.
His biggest leap outside of wrestling was the creation of his own American football league called the XFL. While not in direct competition with the NFL juggernaut, the league’s talent pool and gimmicky rules made it suffer by comparison. It also folded less than a year after its inception.
Dissatisfied with his efforts in the world of legitimate contests, McMahon moved on to the role of Hollywood movie mogul. His WWE Studios (formerly WWE Films) has produced marginally successful B-movies for his stars such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in The Condemned, Glen “Kane” Jacobs in See No Evil and his current pet project, John Cena, in The Marine and the upcoming 12 Rounds. He also holds executive producer credits for Hulk Hogan’s No Holds Barred and Dwayne Johnson’s The Scorpion King and The Rundown simply for allowing his men to participate in these films.
“Doing the job?”
If Vince McMahon hates pro wrestling and its fans, then he truly detests the wrestlers themselves. While the office staff, production crew and management at his company all enjoy typical corporate benefits such as health insurance, vacation time and stock options, the “superstars”, the ones who make the actual product, are all “independent contractors”. Each performer is responsible for his own travel expenses (at over two hundred appearances a year), his own health insurance (with steep premiums and deductibles due to their hazardous line of work) and receives no paid vacation time.
Due to the high physical, mental and emotional demands such a schedule entails, many performers opt for a different occupation. Former stars Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley have moved into the expanding arena of mixed martial arts competition. Previous champion Bill Goldberg has taken jobs as a reality TV host. Dwayne Johnson, now casting off “the Rock” nickname for good, is now an above-the-title movie star.
Others leave McMahon’s kingdom for greener pastures and easier schedules. Hogan, along with Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and several others, left the then-WWF in the mid-90s to join their chief rival, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. Kurt Angle and Mick Foley are among the notable names to move to Orlando, Florida, to work for McMahon’s newest competition, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.
Unfortunately, some performers have allowed the stress to destroy their lives and their families. The list of wrestlers who have died from lethal combinations of steroids, painkillers and recreational drugs could fill an entire book. Owen Hart, fearing for his job security after McMahon had a disagreement with his brother Bret, took part in a dangerous stunt that resulted in his death. The combination of stress, injury, a troubled marriage and a sickly child may have led wrestler Chris Benoit to murder his wife and son before committing suicide.
If his actions over the previous quarter-century fail to show his contempt for pro wrestling, its athletic performers who put their bodies through hell every night, or for the fans that appreciate their hard work, one very telling exchange should remove all doubt.
He related a conversation he had with Ted Turner on the DVD The Monday Night War, which chronicled the six-year ratings battle between his Monday Night Raw show and Turner’s Monday Nitro. In 1988, when Ted Turner bought Jim Crockett Promotions and renamed it World Championship Wrestling, he called Vince McMahon to tell him, “I’m in the ‘rasslin’ business!”
“That’s great, Ted,” McMahon replied. “I’m in the entertainment business.”
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