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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 3)

"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.

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.' "

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