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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."
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

(continued from page 2)

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.

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