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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

 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.  

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