King of the Ring
Let the critics snipe, pro wrestling honcho Vince McMahon will tell you, "we're about what people want."
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Those were the days of dank, smoky arenas and such overblown, campy characters as "Gorgeous George," a wonderfully contoured, heavily made-up wrestler who came into the ring sporting blond curls and a sequined robe. The overall effect made him look like a buffed-up Liberace. The six weeks a summer young Vince spent with his father opened his eyes. "Oh my God! My dad was incredible," says McMahon, letting down his guard and sounding almost vulnerable. "I wanted to be part of his world. I loved the promotion business. I'd hang with him at the wrestling; it was like being the kid in the candy store. I liked the roar of the crowd. I liked the charismatic people. I liked the entertainment. I liked all of it."
One exceptionally magnetic "performer" who caught Vince's eye was a Dr. Jerry Graham. Momentarily returning to contemporary CEO mode, McMahon admonishes: "We don't refer to our performers as wrestlers. They're artists. What people like Steve Austin do with their bodies--combining athleticism with performance--is nothing short of incredible." Dr. Jerry Graham was a 6-foot-3, 300-pound giant who used peroxide in his hair and always dressed in red. Naturally, Vince took to wearing all red, right down to the shoes. When Graham suggested the scrawny youngster work out in a gym, McMahon found himself remarkably motivated.
As McMahon recalls, "Jerry drove around in this '59 Caddy convertible with big fins, and when he was out in public, he'd light his cigars with $100 bills. I'm thinking, 'This is the life.' So I'd try to smoke cigars when I was a kid, and I'd cough and sputter and spew. But it looked so cool the way Jerry handled it--something to do with his hands. Cigars were a big deal--performers, the booking office, heck, you could cut the smoke with a knife. Cigar smoking was a manly thing to do--if you could afford it." Finding that money, though, was a long way off. His mother was a secretary in a government office. The stepfathers were hardly affluent. Meanwhile, Vince was uncontrollable.
"I had a choice of either going to a state-supported reform school or military school. My dad was, in his words, able to 'spring' for it," he says of his journey to Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Virginia. "At 14, I had no reputation, so it was a new beginning, a great chance to start over and create a new reputation." Well, to paraphrase the old lyric from The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," meet the new Vince--same as the old Vince.
McMahon went on to become the first cadet in Fishburne's 100-plus years to be court-martialed, albeit, he points out in painstaking detail, unsuccessfully. What happened was that on the eve of his graduation, it was rumored that he was planning to sabotage the ceremony. A court-martial proceeding was quickly convened. But thanks to the backing of his teachers, who appreciated McMahon's efforts in improving his grades, he was cleared of the charges. It would not be the last time McMahon stood down his accusers. Even then, the entertainer in McMahon couldn't resist himself. "The morning of graduation," he says, "I walked up to this old colonel we had and said, 'You thought I was going to fuck up finals. But now, wait and see what I'm going to do.' He recoiled, and then I said, 'Just kidding.' "
After Fishburne, McMahon enrolled at East Carolina College in Greeenville, North Carolina. Education, though, took a backseat to his true passion. Several years earlier, at 16, McMahon had met a 13-year-old named Linda Edwards, falling in love instantly--with her parents, Henry and Evelyn, that is. "I had no idea what a family was until I met Linda, and saw how they lived," he says. "It was an Ozzie and Harriet life. There wasn't screaming and beating. 'You see,' I thought, 'there's something else.' I wanted some of that stability and love. And then I wanted more of it."
McMahon married Linda after his sophomore year of college, on August 6, 1966. McMahon's father wasn't pleased with the choice, but as usual, the son took action his way. "My dad thought if I got married it would stop me from graduating," says McMahon. "I knew that marrying Linda would ensure that I'd graduate. Linda's a whiz. She's more structured, she's more disciplined. All I'd learned from military school about discipline was how to get around it." East Carolina was also the place where McMahon learned to smoke cigars. Four or five times a semester, whether he was hanging around the dorms or hitting the local pubs, McMahon and his buddies would smoke a few cigars and, as he puts it, "do things college-age men do," he says, adding, "I really like them most after a big meal. I love steak, but when you're in college, you do what you do, so back then it was more having a hamburger and later, a cigar."
Five years after entering East Carolina, McMahon earned a degree in marketing. His sights were set on the family business, but his father wouldn't hear it. "I always wanted to be in the promotion business," says McMahon. "You have certain genes, I guess. My dad wanted the opposite for me. He knew how feast or famine it was. He wanted the pension for me, something secure."
This time, McMahon listened--or at least he tried. He started by selling adding machines, then moved on to ice cream-related products. "So one day I'm at a Tastee-Freeze talking about cups and cones and plastic seal, and the guy's looking right through me. And I say, 'You don't care, do you?' And he says, 'No, I don't. Now is this going to be a good deal or what?' And I realized I didn't really care, either." There followed a brief stint in a rock quarry. Appealing again to his father, McMahon was at last granted a promotional territory in 1972--Bangor, Maine, considered the Siberia of the McMahon wrestling empire.
"'Here's your one shot,' my dad told me. 'If it's not a success, don't ever ask to be in the business again.' I cut my promotional teeth in Bangor. You take an event, you book the hall. You can tell how old-time I am when I call it a hall." Wrestling in those days was still emerging from its decrepit, lowbrow era of musky gyms, dimly lit arenas and hokey programming. "Promoters didn't do much," says McMahon. "Some were still doing studio wrestling, where you'd bring a crowd of 60 people into a studio. Magazines were on a cheap paper, all filled with blood and guts. I had this instinct wrestling could be better, bigger."
Television was the key. Bringing in more cameras, improving lighting, cleaning up the arenas, and spending heavily on advertising and airtime, McMahon took wrestling out of the Stone Age. His education was helped significantly when he purchased the 5,000-seat Cape Cod Coliseum in 1979 and brought in a wide range of entertainment, from rock concerts to sports events and comedians. Whether he was studying licensing deals, creating colorful merchandise or exploring new tricks in stage placement, McMahon at last was attending "school" full-time. His father, pondering retirement, began letting his son take an increasingly larger role in all aspects of the business. (Vince's older brother, Rod, involved in the oil business in Texas, has had nothing to do with wrestling.)
Vince took over the business in 1982. He declines to say what he paid for it. "It scared me to death," he says, "but I wanted it, too." The McMahons and their investors made a deal that required Vince to buy out the business through a series of monthly payments. Miss one, and the younger Vince's ownership role would end. As anyone who encounters Vince McMahon instantly learns, surrendering control is as loathsome to him as dealing with a stepfather.
In the 1980s, for a number of reasons--most notably, the rise of cable TV and the openhanded admission that wresting wasn't really a sport--McMahon took the show national. Aided by a charismatic, mustachioed blond he christened Hulk Hogan, McMahon took the WWF to staggering levels of popularity. Popular singer Cyndi Lauper put wrestlers in her videos and "managed" a WWF wrestler. "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin opened WrestleMania II with a compelling rendition of "America the Beautiful." Celebrities such as Mr. T, Mike Tyson, Liberace and Ray Charles dropped in, adding luster and a touch of credibility. Crowds as large as 90,000 attended some WWF events.
But it wasn't easy for McMahon to keep the whole ship together. Scandals involving accusations of sexual misconduct and illegal drug use rocked the WWF. As Linda once said, "Vince was accused of being everything from a homosexual rapist to a heterosexual rapist to a child molester to a drug user and distributor. I think at one point someone asked him where he was on the day Kennedy was shot." All the controversy eroded the WWF's credibility, opening the door for WCW to capture its share of hearts and minds, while McMahon spent less time promoting and more time testifying. It all came to a head in 1993, when the U.S. Justice Depart-ment accused McMahon of distributing steroids. This was no longer a matter of entertaining and giving the people what they wanted. This was time for Vince McMahon to dig in and do what he does best: fight back.
"There's good and bad in everything, including the government," says McMahon, who has admitted that he has taken steroids. "We came against some people in the Justice Department who thought they could make a mark. They thought we were easy. It took the government two years to prove that it didn't have anything on us. They wanted me to plea-bargain, and I was very outspoken--something about sticking it up their ass." McMahon was acquitted.
Once he'd faced down the Justice Department, McMahon was ready to take no prisoners when faced with legal challenges. This year, for example, Rena Mero, a former WWF wrestler known as "Sable," displeased with her plot lines, sued the WWF for $110 million and the right to her name. "Almost weekly," she told USA Today, "I was asked to go on television and have my clothes ripped off in some way." Once she declined to bare her breasts, says Mero, she lost her championship belt and saw her merchandise pulled from store shelves. Subsequently, Mero says that she went to her dressing room and discovered that her things had been smeared with human feces. Asked about the case, McMahon quickly snaps, "That's been settled"--and then the sharp brown eyes await the next question. (For her part, Mero has agreed to surrender any claim to the "Sable" name and will stay out of wrestling for three years.)
Lawsuits are only one social struggle McMahon addresses fearlessly. As wrestling grows, its societal impact raises issues related to violence, sex and profanity. An Indiana University study of 50 WWF episodes, done with television's "Inside Edition," reported 1,658 instances of grabbing or pointing to one's crotch, 157 instances of an obscene finger gesture, 128 episodes of simulated sexual activity, and 21 references to urination. "Anyone who says we're about violence," says McMahon, "I flip them the bird and say, 'Hello?' Violence is about guns, rape and burglary. You're not going to see Uzis, knives and guns on our show."
But what if that's what the people want? "No need to go there. We're not teaching you to blow people up," says McMahon. "Let's talk about sex: look at 'Beverly Hills 90210.' We're very tame compared to that." But there are indeed moments when even the most obsessive promoter loses control. Big entertainment sometimes poses big risks. For the WWF, disaster struck on May 23 at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, when Owen Hart, brother of former McMahon nemesis Bret Hart, fell more than 50 feet to his death while being lowered by a cable onto a stage. The show went on, and while critics attacked McMahon for continuing the match and what they claimed was his feigned concern (WWF announcers had to convince their audience that Hart's death was real), McMahon knew it was vital to make a statement.
The statement came with the following night's show. That evening's "Raw" began with all WWF wrestlers and employees coming out to pay tribute to Hart as a bell rang 10 times in his honor. Wrestlers cried during their speeches. A wrestling follower and journalist named Bill Simmons, also known as "Boston's Sports Guy," called it "the most memorable two hours of television in recent memory....Suddenly these weren't characters playing out their role in the grand play; they were simply working-class guys trying to earn a living. Wrestling may be fake, but that's about as real as it gets." For McMahon, the tribute only heightened his sense that the WWF is not just a business; it's a family.
Family is particularly important to McMahon. Through the ups and downs of the business, the legal battles and the personal challenges he's faced, he's struggled mightily to build the sense of belonging and security he lacked as a child. Fittingly, it was a family occasion that brought him back to cigars nearly three decades after he savored them at East Carolina.
"The cigar craze was really picking up five or six years ago," says McMahon, "and one day, my son Shane and I are celebrating something, I don't even remember what, and he says, 'How 'bout it, Dad? Want to smoke one?' I didn't even know he smoked them. And I figured, 'Why not?' "That experience with Shane took me back to college, to good times with my friends. Conjuring up college was kind of cool. It wasn't cool to take five years to graduate, but when I look backon life, I had good times. I got married in college, and it was pleasurable."
Don't ever expect McMahon to make a cigar part of his promotional shtick. "There was a time when cigars fit in with the Damon Runyonesque view of old-time promoters who always had one," says McMahon. "It seemed like the bigger the cigar, the more important you are. "But I generally don't fit the bill of what a promoter is. I've never smoked a cigar in an arena. I like fresh air. I like smelling things the way they're meant to be smelled. So I want to be in an area where I can enjoy the cigar. Sometimes in our business, that's late at night or when we're closing a restaurant and I'm not going to bother anyone else.
"Best of all I like it when we get together at home [in Greenwich, Connecticut]. There'll be 10 or 15 of us over for dinner, and when you get the Irish side of my family with my daughter-in-law's Italian side, it's a blast. We enjoy each other very much."
The women, however, generally don't like the smell of McMahon's beloved smokes, particularly the Davidoff Double R. ("That's about all I smoke," he says. "I like one thing and then I stick with it.") Instead, McMahon's favorite cigar-smoking venue is his four-car garage, where one parking space sits empty. No chairs adorn this area. It's just an austere slab of concrete where McMahon, Shane and the other men of the McMahon clan can stand, smoke cigars, talk, slap each other on the back and, for once in McMahon's life, chill out.
"Cigars are definitely a bit of a men's club for a moment," says McMahon, "a real male bonding situation for me. We're always standing in that garage. I like it that way. I'm not one to sit on my ass a lot. I like to stand, to move around. Maybe some of the guys will sit on the steps or on the hood of the car, but me, I can stand and see who's coming. It's fun to dip a cigar in a little VSOP. I'll sip a little brandy, and with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other, surrounded by good people, I'm able to relax, which is very difficult for me.
"You know, the way I look at it, anybody who's worth their salt tries to live life as best they can, to squeeze out of it what they can. You've got to put more into it to get so much out of it. And so, to me, relaxing on occasion with a cigar is just a chance to squeeze a bit of relaxation into my life."
And then, as the men leave and the cigars are put out, McMahon will play with his new toy. As a birthday present this summer, Linda bought Vince a Bullmastiff puppy. For McMahon, it was love at first sight. The dog's name? "Ruckus," he says proudly, pointing his thumb at his chest and announcing, "I named him that." Years ago, dabbling in songwriting, McMahon wrote a tune whose lyrics went, "I'm a man running wild, heading for the top/Along the way, you're going to see a lot of men drop." A lively ruckus, after all, has always been this man's best friend.
Oakland-based Joel Drucker writes about sports and popular culture for Diversion, Tennis, HBO Sports and others.