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
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.
"You're in my state now," Ventura barked to Triple H, one of three wrestlers competing that evening. "I am law and order here." Prior to the event, Ventura had bragged that he was "bigger and more powerful than Vince McMahon." Prove it, McMahon would likely bark back. At 6-foot, 2-inches and 230 pounds, McMahon has a commanding presence. His eyes resemble dense brown stones, friendly at first glance, but unwavering, and taking on a laser-like intensity at the slightest prompt. Even if a governor holds more clout than a big-time promoter does, McMahon will gladly cherish the struggle.
Consider McMahon's long-standing rivalry with media mogul Ted Turner. In the early 1980s, when Turner sensed the potential of wrestling and sought to buy the WWF, he told McMahon, "Vince, I'm in the 'rassling business." "Fine, Ted," countered McMahon; "I'm in the entertainment business." Rebuffed by McMahon, Turner launched World Championship Wrestling (WCW), signing WWF stars. "The only bad guy I know is Ted Turner," says McMahon. But how bad can he be when each is winning in the marketplace? Even rivalry is but a plot point. Several years ago, the WWF created a hayseed character called "Billionaire Ted."
Flip as McMahon's comeback line may seem, the truth is that entertainment has been the cornerstone of the WWF's success. Back in the mid-1980s, McMahon publicly admitted what everyone knew for years: plots were built in advance by a team of writers, producers, directors and technical experts, the lines scripted (albeit with room for improv), the outcomes predetermined.
McMahon's announcement liberated wrestling from dealing with complicated licensing fees and costly state athletic commissions. McMahon subsequently coined the obvious but useful term "sports entertainment" to describe his business. The WWF made its focus even more emphatic later in the decade when, in February 1989, just as the New Jersey Senate was deciding whether to remove wrestling from the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission (which levies a 10 percent surtax on profits from TV revenues), a WWF statement declared that wrestling should be defined as "an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest."
"Wrestling had been promoted as a sport," says McMahon, "but it wasn't true even back when Abraham Lincoln wrestled. So I said, 'Let's level with our audience and corporate America.' To The New York Times, it was big news. To us, it was a way to tell Madison Avenue, 'This is who we are.'
"Just look at all the elements on our show. It's action-adventure. But it's also a talk show. But someone else might say it's a cartoon beyond belief. Or it's a soap opera, or a grandiose rock concert. And the athleticism is nothing short of extraordinary. We have no boundaries or limitations. We can go anywhere we want to. We're only limited by our imagination and creativity. We take the best of show biz and roll it all into one."
Lately it's been rolling pretty darn good. Over the past two years, according to WWF estimates, revenues have tripled, from $81.9 million in 1997 to $251.5 million for the 1999 fiscal year that ended on April 30. Better yet, net profits, down $6.5 million in '97, were up $56 million in fiscal '99. World Wrestling Federation Entertainment holds more than 200 live events each year in major stadiums and arenas throughout the world. Every week, WWF produces nine hours of original television programming for such outlets as USA Network and UPN. This year, "Raw is War," WWF's USA Network entry, was the top-rated cable program for 19 straight weeks. WWF's three cable programs ("Raw is War" is often broken into two programs, "Raw Is War" and "War Zone," and there's also "Sunday Night Heat") earned 26 of the top 30 rankings on the Nielsen list of most-watched shows among all basic cable networks. During the week of July 26 to August 1, for example, the highest ratings on basic cable networks (approximately 15 to 20 networks in each of 212 designated market areas) were all earned by WWF programs, each viewed in more than 5 million homes.
The WWF also distributes its programming and pay-per-view events to more than 150 nations in nine languages. WWF markets and sells its branded merchandise through a network of some 85 licensees worldwide; publishes two monthly magazines with a combined annual circulation of approximately 5.8 million; and distributes news and information about its programming and products through its www.wwf.com Internet site.
The empire took even bigger strides on August 3 when WWF (the parent company was formerly known as Titan Sports) declared its intention to become a publicly held company by offering approximately $172.5 million in class A stock and earn a NASDAQ listing. Such august bodies as Bear, Stearns; Credit Suisse First Boston; Merrill Lynch and Wit Capital were slated to manage the IPO. A New York Post article estimated WWF's potential value at $750 million.
Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, believes historical events are a major reason for wrestling's recent ascent. "Since the end of the Cold War, there's no one for us to beat up on, no real hated enemy like we had with the Soviet Union for so many years," says Dundes. "We've had a hard time finding outlets for our machismo. On the face of it, we condemn violence. But any chance for a culturally sanctioned escape is worth it. We don't really want to see blood. Wrestling is actually a good thing--far better to see this stuff come out on a playing field than in battle. The hype's almost more fun than the game itself."
Though he decries "egghead philosophers who try to tell us what we are," even McMahon notes a historical connection surrounding the evolution of WWF plot lines. In the 1980s, echoing the Cold War, it was mostly a matter of good guys versus bad guys. "Black and white, pretty simple," he says. "But now we're into more entendres, different shadings." One plot line, for example, saw a female wrestler named Chyna accused of sexual harassment by the poetic, soft-spoken, 300-pound Mark Henry. Another conflict you weren't likely to see in wrestling's old days involved pretty boy Val Venis stealing Terri, the wife of Dustin Runnels, who had earlier turned into Golddust, a blond-wigged cross-dresser. Throw in The Undertaker, who at times has been in a feud with his long-lost brother, the mute Kane, and you can see why WWF's twisting story lines have been compared to David Lynch's surreal TV show, Twin Peaks.
"We're all somewhat flawed, and people like seeing that aspect of people, too," says McMahon. "It's much more complicated. Is any of us necessarily all good or all bad?" But the bottom line: "In a word, it's fun. Every night is Saturday night for me. This isn't work. When you can entertain millions and millions of fans all over the world, that's a great sign, a great thrill, as great as it gets in business."
Plans are underway at the WWF for continued expansion--CDs, Web sites, books, magazines--all part of McMahon's relentless crusade to "build a brand." As his 29-year-old son, Shane, president of the company's new media division, puts it: "The model is Disney." The Disney connection to family values continues with the involvement of McMahon's 22-year-old daughter, Stephanie, a WWF ad sales account executive who at times has entered the ring and been abducted by wrestlers seeking vengeance on McMahon.
And yet, for all of McMahon's desire to please, for all his love of entertainment and pleasure, please, sir, do not in any way confuse him with an imperial entertainment mogul. He is no Michael Eisner, descending from the mountain in tie and jacket to cuddle awkwardly with Mickey Mouse. It's hard to imagine McMahon wearing chinos and gingerly sipping Chardonnay at those patrician-style outings of the rich and famous. "They can sit in their ivory towers all they want," he says of other entertainment industry honchos. "Me, I'm very middle-class. We're about Peoria here. I'm very comfortable being of the people."
On November 9, 1997, after years of delighting in his behind-the-scenes role of promoter and TV announcer, McMahon took a step into the WWF arena. Reigning champion Bret "Hitman" Hart was competing in his native Canada. A son of an old-time wrestling promoter, Hart wasn't enjoying the brassy, in-your-face approach McMahon was taking. Goosed by McMahon, Hart began lecturing from the ring, daring fans to examine why they loved bad guys--and even imploring them to ponder broader social issues such as racism and poverty. This being the entertainment business, Hart's popularity plummeted.
By the November 9 event, Hart had been planning to leave the WWF. McMahon didn't want him taking the championship belt with him, so he decided to strip Hart of his title. No way, said Hart, who was ready to leave, but justifiably knew that defeat on his home turf would sharply diminish his reputation and negotiating leverage with WCW. On the other hand, there was no way McMahon was going to let someone walk away from the WWF with the esteemed belt in his hands. "We were at loggerheads," says McMahon. "I decided that Bret was losing the WWF championship. I've always had the courage of my convictions. I told the audience what happened. They wanted to boo me off the stage." Instantly, McMahon knew he was on to something.
"We realized then we could put me in a venue where the public could express its anger," he says. He took on the role of "Mr. McMahon" (OK, so it's not the most creative nom de guerre), a tight-fisted, combative promoter who kept the WWF wrestlers on a tight leash--and naturally nourished an atmosphere of bitter, physical anger among his charges.
The "Mr. McMahon" character's most bitter battles were with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Rough around the edges, unwilling to bow to authority, Austin agrees that, "Like Vince McMahon says, I'm a corporate nightmare. I don't dress up a whole lot. Sometimes my language is a little offensive. I drink a few beers on TV. I'm not a yes man. I do what I want, when and how I want." One night, Austin whupped a Bible-thumping wrestler, who in turn began spouting lines from John 3:16. "Well," said Austin, "Steve 3:16 goes like this--I just kicked your ass."
In rapid order, the WWF created a line of "Austin 3:16" T-shirts that are de rigeur for Austin fans. You can also buy an oversized foam hand that says "Austin 3:16" and features, instead of the classic "We're Number One" finger, an extended middle digit. Lest you think this makes Austin unpopular across the American heartland, take heed that he is a featured face in the famous "Milk Moustache" campaign.
Adding more spice to this is that Shane McMahon took on the role of Austin's advocate, creating a provocative father-son conflict. "We've seen this on 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty,' " says father Vince. "It's made for great theater." It should be noted that McMahon's finger-flaring exit in Cleveland took place shortly before the WWF declared its intent to go public. Around Wall Street, the period between filing your paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to go public and the IPO is known as "the quiet period," when CEOs are urged by the SEC not to excessively hype their organization lest they skew perceptions of the corporation's value. McMahon's truculence ("giving the bird" is an action that he resorts to frequently) is hardly the stuff that gets you written up as an avatar of synergy, new media, convergence or any of those other terms so popular in the entertainment industry. So much the better, McMahon believes.
"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.' "
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.
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