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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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.
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