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King of the Ring

Let the critics snipe, pro wrestling honcho Vince McMahon will tell you, "we're about what people want."

 It's a summer night in Cleveland, and Vince McMahon, for once in his combative life, is backing down from a conflict. The chairman of the World Wrestling Federation is offering to bury the hatchet with his perennial antagonist, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Fans who've seen Austin repeatedly throw McMahon to the ground during matches over the past 18 months can't believe McMahon is even daring to enter the ring.  
As he and Austin eye each other, McMahon offers his hand. Austin glares, eyeing McMahon as a freak. Austin pauses. Maybe it's an offer worth taking.  
McMahon's hand remains in the air.  
Austin moves forward, raises his right hand, and then, swiftly, in the manner of the classic prank, yanks it back. Then he tells McMahon, the sold-out crowd and millions of TV viewers that he'd prefer breaking McMahon's arm. And once that is done, Austin declares that he'd enjoy nothing more than shoving McMahon's thumb up McMahon's posterior--though posterior isn't the word he uses.   The fans go nuts. Few things make them happier than seeing McMahon eat crow.  
The rejected McMahon exits the ring. The crowd is eager to see him depart, serenading him with that popular farewell, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey--goodbye!"   McMahon trudges down the aisle. The boos continue.   Just as McMahon is about to leave the arena, he turns on his heels and flips the crowd a double bird.   For McMahon, it was another entry for his hypothetical biography, Just Another Day in Paradise.  
To hear McMahon explain it, the romance of our lives revolves around our wants. Needs? Inanimate objects? Merely utilitarian, way too static. "I don't relate well to things," he says, sitting behind his desk at WWF's base of operations, a four-story building in Stamford, Connecticut, that shimmers in the daylight and, in the manner of a pirate ship, waves a WWF flag off its side. "Products? Eccchhhh!"  
Bring on the animate, the mobile and, best of all for the raw meat-loving McMahon, the visceral, and you tap into something much more powerful than simple satisfaction. You encounter our appetite for adventure, that carnal lust for thrills, excitement and, yes, an escape from the tedium of daily living. In his gut, in his heart, in his mouth, Vince McMahon believes the World Wrestling Federation satisfies these public yearnings better than any business in America. "No one is as sensitive to public taste as us," he says. "We have our own focus group 200 times a year. We're about what people want."  
What they want are high-impact events like "SummerSlam." The August 22 rendition of this pay-per-view program was held at Minneapolis's Target Center in front of 19,404 fans and millions more who typically forked over $29.95 for the telecast. In large part, "SummerSlam" was no different than hundreds of other WWF events: slamming bodies, trash-talking plot lines that twist good and evil, big boys throwing each other onto a mat, gratuitous chair-whackings, intermittent appearances from slinky, large-busted women; all the components that make wrestling, in McMahon's words, "the best and only true variety show on television."  
Adding even more credibility, if you will, was the presence of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, the former mid-level WWF wrestler who shocked the world by becoming governor of Minnesota. Ventura was referee for this edition of SummerSlam, which was the main event for the WWF championship.  
"There's a lot of media saying I'm a disgrace for being here," Ventura said that evening. "I'll tell you this: I'm proud of wrestling. I'm proud to be a wrestler and I'm proud to be here tonight." The crowd responded with a standing ovation and repeated chants of "Jesse, Jesse" throughout the evening. Wearing a long-sleeved black-and-white referee shirt, Ventura--only a footnote when he refereed a 1988 SummerSlam--took charge with all the gusto McMahon and the WWF fans have come to love.  
"You're in my state now," Ventura barked to Triple H, one of three wrestlers competing that evening. "I am law and order here."   Prior to the event, Ventura had bragged that he was "bigger and more powerful than Vince McMahon." Prove it, McMahon would likely bark back. At 6-foot, 2-inches and 230 pounds, McMahon has a commanding presence. His eyes resemble dense brown stones, friendly at first glance, but unwavering, and taking on a laser-like intensity at the slightest prompt. Even if a governor holds more clout than a big-time promoter does, McMahon will gladly cherish the struggle.  
Consider McMahon's long-standing rivalry with media mogul Ted Turner. In the early 1980s, when Turner sensed the potential of wrestling and sought to buy the WWF, he told McMahon, "Vince, I'm in the 'rassling business." "Fine, Ted," countered McMahon; "I'm in the entertainment business." Rebuffed by McMahon, Turner launched World Championship Wrestling (WCW), signing WWF stars. "The only bad guy I know is Ted Turner," says McMahon. But how bad can he be when each is winning in the marketplace? Even rivalry is but a plot point. Several years ago, the WWF created a hayseed character called "Billionaire Ted."  
Flip as McMahon's comeback line may seem, the truth is that entertainment has been the cornerstone of the WWF's success. Back in the mid-1980s, McMahon publicly admitted what everyone knew for years: plots were built in advance by a team of writers, producers, directors and technical experts, the lines scripted (albeit with room for improv), the outcomes predetermined.
McMahon's announcement liberated wrestling from dealing with complicated licensing fees and costly state athletic commissions. McMahon subsequently coined the obvious but useful term "sports entertainment" to describe his business. The WWF made its focus even more emphatic later in the decade when, in February 1989, just as the New Jersey Senate was deciding whether to remove wrestling from the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission (which levies a 10 percent surtax on profits from TV revenues), a WWF statement declared that wrestling should be defined as "an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest."
"Wrestling had been promoted as a sport," says McMahon, "but it wasn't true even back when Abraham Lincoln wrestled. So I said, 'Let's level with our audience and corporate America.' To The New York Times, it was big news. To us, it was a way to tell Madison Avenue, 'This is who we are.'
"Just look at all the elements on our show. It's action-adventure. But it's also a talk show. But someone else might say it's a cartoon beyond belief. Or it's a soap opera, or a grandiose rock concert. And the athleticism is nothing short of extraordinary. We have no boundaries or limitations. We can go anywhere we want to. We're only limited by our imagination and creativity. We take the best of show biz and roll it all into one."  
Lately it's been rolling pretty darn good. Over the past two years, according to WWF estimates, revenues have tripled, from $81.9 million in 1997 to $251.5 million for the 1999 fiscal year that ended on April 30. Better yet, net profits, down $6.5 million in '97, were up $56 million in fiscal '99. World Wrestling Federation Entertainment holds more than 200 live events each year in major stadiums and arenas throughout the world. Every week, WWF produces nine hours of original television programming for such outlets as USA Network and UPN. This year, "Raw is War," WWF's USA Network entry, was the top-rated cable program for 19 straight weeks. WWF's three cable programs ("Raw is War" is often broken into two programs, "Raw Is War" and "War Zone," and there's also "Sunday Night Heat") earned 26 of the top 30 rankings on the Nielsen list of most-watched shows among all basic cable networks. During the week of July 26 to August 1, for example, the highest ratings on basic cable networks (approximately 15 to 20 networks in each of 212 designated market areas) were all earned by WWF programs, each viewed in more than 5 million homes.
The WWF also distributes its programming and pay-per-view events to more than 150 nations in nine languages. WWF markets and sells its branded merchandise through a network of some 85 licensees worldwide; publishes two monthly magazines with a combined annual circulation of approximately 5.8 million; and distributes news and information about its programming and products through its Internet site.  
The empire took even bigger strides on August 3 when WWF (the parent company was formerly known as Titan Sports) declared its intention to become a publicly held company by offering approximately $172.5 million in class A stock and earn a NASDAQ listing. Such august bodies as Bear, Stearns; Credit Suisse First Boston; Merrill Lynch and Wit Capital were slated to manage the IPO. A New York Post article estimated WWF's potential value at $750 million.
Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, believes historical events are a major reason for wrestling's recent ascent. "Since the end of the Cold War, there's no one for us to beat up on, no real hated enemy like we had with the Soviet Union for so many years," says Dundes. "We've had a hard time finding outlets for our machismo. On the face of it, we condemn violence. But any chance for a culturally sanctioned escape is worth it. We don't really want to see blood. Wrestling is actually a good thing--far better to see this stuff come out on a playing field than in battle. The hype's almost more fun than the game itself."
Though he decries "egghead philosophers who try to tell us what we are," even McMahon notes a historical connection surrounding the evolution of WWF plot lines. In the 1980s, echoing the Cold War, it was mostly a matter of good guys versus bad guys. "Black and white, pretty simple," he says. "But now we're into more entendres, different shadings."   One plot line, for example, saw a female wrestler named Chyna accused of sexual harassment by the poetic, soft-spoken, 300-pound Mark Henry. Another conflict you weren't likely to see in wrestling's old days involved pretty boy Val Venis stealing Terri, the wife of Dustin Runnels, who had earlier turned into Golddust, a blond-wigged cross-dresser. Throw in The Undertaker, who at times has been in a feud with his long-lost brother, the mute Kane, and you can see why WWF's twisting story lines have been compared to David Lynch's surreal TV show, Twin Peaks.
"We're all somewhat flawed, and people like seeing that aspect of people, too," says McMahon. "It's much more complicated. Is any of us necessarily all good or all bad?" But the bottom line: "In a word, it's fun. Every night is Saturday night for me. This isn't work. When you can entertain millions and millions of fans all over the world, that's a great sign, a great thrill, as great as it gets in business."
Plans are underway at the WWF for continued expansion--CDs, Web sites, books, magazines--all part of McMahon's relentless crusade to "build a brand." As his 29-year-old son, Shane, president of the company's new media division, puts it: "The model is Disney." The Disney connection to family values continues with the involvement of McMahon's 22-year-old daughter, Stephanie, a WWF ad sales account executive who at times has entered the ring and been abducted by wrestlers seeking vengeance on McMahon.
And yet, for all of McMahon's desire to please, for all his love of entertainment and pleasure, please, sir, do not in any way confuse him with an imperial entertainment mogul. He is no Michael Eisner, descending from the mountain in tie and jacket to cuddle awkwardly with Mickey Mouse. It's hard to imagine McMahon wearing chinos and gingerly sipping Chardonnay at those patrician-style outings of the rich and famous. "They can sit in their ivory towers all they want," he says of other entertainment industry honchos. "Me, I'm very middle-class. We're about Peoria here. I'm very comfortable being of the people."
On November 9, 1997, after years of delighting in his behind-the-scenes role of promoter and TV announcer, McMahon took a step into the WWF arena. Reigning champion Bret "Hitman" Hart was competing in his native Canada. A son of an old-time wrestling promoter, Hart wasn't enjoying the brassy, in-your-face approach McMahon was taking. Goosed by McMahon, Hart began lecturing from the ring, daring fans to examine why they loved bad guys--and even imploring them to ponder broader social issues such as racism and poverty. This being the entertainment business, Hart's popularity plummeted.
By the November 9 event, Hart had been planning to leave the WWF. McMahon didn't want him taking the championship belt with him, so he decided to strip Hart of his title. No way, said Hart, who was ready to leave, but justifiably knew that defeat on his home turf would sharply diminish his reputation and negotiating leverage with WCW. On the other hand, there was no way McMahon was going to let someone walk away from the WWF with the esteemed belt in his hands.   "We were at loggerheads," says McMahon. "I decided that Bret was losing the WWF championship. I've always had the courage of my convictions. I told the audience what happened. They wanted to boo me off the stage."   Instantly, McMahon knew he was on to something.
"We realized then we could put me in a venue where the public could express its anger," he says. He took on the role of "Mr. McMahon" (OK, so it's not the most creative nom de guerre), a tight-fisted, combative promoter who kept the WWF wrestlers on a tight leash--and naturally nourished an atmosphere of bitter, physical anger among his charges.
The "Mr. McMahon" character's most bitter battles were with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Rough around the edges, unwilling to bow to authority, Austin agrees that, "Like Vince McMahon says, I'm a corporate nightmare. I don't dress up a whole lot. Sometimes my language is a little offensive. I drink a few beers on TV. I'm not a yes man. I do what I want, when and how I want." One night, Austin whupped a Bible-thumping wrestler, who in turn began spouting lines from John 3:16. "Well," said Austin, "Steve 3:16 goes like this--I just kicked your ass."
In rapid order, the WWF created a line of "Austin 3:16" T-shirts that are de rigeur for Austin fans. You can also buy an oversized foam hand that says "Austin 3:16" and features, instead of the classic "We're Number One" finger, an extended middle digit. Lest you think this makes Austin unpopular across the American heartland, take heed that he is a featured face in the famous "Milk Moustache" campaign.
Adding more spice to this is that Shane McMahon took on the role of Austin's advocate, creating a provocative father-son conflict. "We've seen this on 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty,' " says father Vince. "It's made for great theater."   It should be noted that McMahon's finger-flaring exit in Cleveland took place shortly before the WWF declared its intent to go public. Around Wall Street, the period between filing your paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to go public and the IPO is known as "the quiet period," when CEOs are urged by the SEC not to excessively hype their organization lest they skew perceptions of the corporation's value. McMahon's truculence ("giving the bird" is an action that he resorts to frequently) is hardly the stuff that gets you written up as an avatar of synergy, new media, convergence or any of those other terms so popular in the entertainment industry. So much the better, McMahon believes.
"When I see the lack of interaction and the egos of a lot of corporate executives, I want to break them down," says McMahon. "That's a wrestling term for getting down to the ground. I want to bring them down to the ground and make them be with the people, so they're a foot from the sewer. I'd like to hold them there for a day or two, to be of the street. Keeping our nose to the ground is what we're about."
The image of McMahon pinning an Eisner or a Turner proves that while you can take the boy out of wrestling, you can't take the wrestling out of the man. Businesslike and polite as McMahon can be ("Would you like a protein bar? Something to drink? We're going to have a good talk," he tells a guest), within him beats the heart not of an entertainer, but of a combatant. Vince McMahon is a fighter, not a lover. "There's always an interest in mano a mano," he says. "It's inbred in us as human beings."
Certainly that is the case for McMahon, who, he claims, has never backed down from anyone in his life. Vincent Kennedy McMahon was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, on August 24, 1945. His parents divorced soon after. Vince was raised by his mother and a series of stepfathers. "They were all assholes," he says, recalling with rancor the men who would blur the line between discipline and abuse. Young Vince, fighting back, adapted a motto he carries to this day: "As long as you live through it, you survive."
Sports were the natural outlet for the combative youngster. Muscular and lean, Vince once threw five innings of a perfect game against a Little League all-star team that had not included him on its roster. But his volatility--"I had a violent temper. Losing--WOW!--that would send me up the wall."--coupled with his utter lack of discipline, soon drove him off the athletic fields. The popular term in those days was "juvenile delinquent," and Vince, in his terms "majoring in bad ass," fit the description to a tee.
Not until the age of 12 did he meet his biological father, Vincent James McMahon (Vince adamantly points out that he is "not a junior"). The elder McMahon was following in the footsteps of his father, Jess, as a wrestling promoter in the Northeast.   Vincent James ran an operation called the Capitol Wrestling Federation, stretching from the Uline Arena in Washington, D.C., all the way to Maine, including the center of the wrestling universe, Madison Square Garden in New York City. But Capitol Wrestling was only one of many regional wrestling groups run by promoters (such as Bret Hart's father, Stu, in Calgary) who worked under a gentleman's agreement not to raid one another's territory.
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