King of the Ring
Let the critics snipe, pro wrestling honcho Vince McMahon will tell you, "we're about what people want."
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99
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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.
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