Why America's Hooked On Wrestling

On Dec. 13 of last year, the World Wrestling Federation was broadcasting live from Tampa, Fla., and trouble, as they say, was afoot. Baseball legend Wade Boggs was in the house; the nation's No. 1 author, a man in a leather mask named Mankind, was scheduled to wrestle; the women's chocolate-pudding match was good to go. Yet all was not right: not for the WWF, not for Vince McMahon, its chairman and mastermind. On the previous week's broadcast, his real-life daughter, Stephanie, had been "tricked" into marrying his arch nemesis, the wrestler Triple H. Now McMahon was running into the ring with a sledgehammer, out for blood. Stephanie had a surprise for him. She was in love with Triple H, she told him. And further, they were taking control of the company. "Triple H outsmarted you by making business personal. That's something you know all about."

This is the same Vince McMahon who, from a sleek corporate office in Stamford, Conn., presides over a huge media empire. In the last 17 years, using tactics not so different from the Machiavellian drama on screen, he has transformed a modest family company into a media machine of surprising scale and synergy--a louder, raunchier version of the Disney kingdom. To the uninitiated or unconvinced, pro wrestling may seem like a dopey spectacle in which really big guys put on silly tights and pretend to beat each other up. And OK, it is that, but it is also a very big business, and has become an addiction for a broad cross section of young America. The WWF's "Raw Is War," watched by about 5 million households weekly, is the highest-rated show on cable; "SmackDown!," seen in another 5 million, is the top-rated show on UPN. These are just the wheels of the machine, though. The WWF's home videos routinely rank No. 1 in sports, its action figures outsell Pokemon's and its Web site is one of the first outlets to turn streaming video into profits (other than porn sites, of course--and some would argue the distinction is subtle). The autobiographies of two WWF wrestlers, Mankind (Mick Foley) and the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), are currently Nos. 1 and 3 on The New York Times best-seller list. Add in revenue from live ticket sales, pay-per-views, platinum-selling CDs and a new theme restaurant, all in turn promoting the shows and each other. "If someone said, 'Build me a model program, something that'll have all kinds of synergies and profit centers'," McMahon says, "you would build this."

You should be so savvy. The company is projecting sales of $340 million for this year, up from $250 million in 1999. The stock market values the company, 83 percent of which is owned by the family, at more than $1 billion. At a time when television has lost the ability to seduce young male viewers with sex and violence, McMahon has crafted a luridly compelling new delivery system: comic, winking, with daredevil action, larger-than-life cleavage and soap-opera plots. For a jaded audience raised on Quentin Tarantino and bored by political correctness, he gave up the pretense that wrestling was real. In its place, he framed the bouts with a "behind the scenes" saga about his own family, full of sex and intrigue, and starring the McMahons themselves--a second layer of unreality, creating ironic distance from the first. You could take it straight, or with a twist. Here was something to believe in: the candidly, honestly fake.

Of course, the company is not Disney, and not just because it's more popular with 14-year-olds. A third-generation wrestling promoter, McMahon has set new standards of sleaze, outraging some parents and embarrassing many of the genre's legends. Cardboard good guys and bad guys were replaced with pimps, porn stars and sociopaths. "Darwin proved there was a theory of evolution," says Jim (Baron Von) Raschke, 59, who wrestled until the early '90s. "McMahon has taken us back to where we started." The story of his rise, and the enemies he has made along the way, is made for a family soap opera. It is made, in fact, for "SmackDown!" The Rock, a third-generation grappler himself, understands that life inside the squared circle is like no other. "Frankly," he says, "if you're not born in the business, it's hard to grasp."

Vincent Kennedy McMahon was born on Aug. 24, 1945, the second son of parents already speeding toward divorce. Raised by his mother and stepfather in rural North Carolina, he met his father when he was 12, and began his twin obsessions with family and business that would govern his adult life. From his offices in Washington, D.C.'s Franklin Park Hotel, Vincent James McMahon ran Capital Wrestling, a regional circuit that put on shows from Virginia to Maine.

In that era, wrestlers worked in "territories," performing throughout one region of the country for crowds of a few hundred to a few thousand. The promoters had an unwritten agreement not to invade each other's turf or steal each other's wrestlers. It was a period of louche glamour. Wrestlers lived in a state of nomadic grace, a nightly caravan of big men in big cars. The pay wasn't like today, when big-timers can make $5 million a year, plus stock options, but the performers' resourcefulness was the stuff of legend. "I've seen four midgets in one bed in a hotel room," says "Pretty Boy" Larry Sharpe. "And four broads knocking on the door to get in." They were their own outsize tribe, "the last of the Gypsies," says McMahon. "Of course I came along and drove all that out."

As he grew closer to his father, Vince fell under the thrall of a flamboyant blond wrestler named Dr. Jerry Graham. What Dr. Jerry offered the boy was a far cry from life in his mother's trailer park. "How often do you get to ride around in a 1959 blood red Cadillac convertible, lighting a cigar with a hundred-dollar bill, not stopping at stoplights?" asks McMahon. He was hooked. When his father suspected an underling of stealing from him, he reluctantly let Vince take over the shows in Bangor, Maine, a minor Capital outpost.

Where his father was polished, Vince was brashly ambitious, a Sonny Corleone in a world of spandex and brawn. He was a cocky kid, a born "heel" (villain) in the only industry in which becoming the most-hated man in America qualifies as a noble career objective. He expanded into neighboring towns and urged his father to wage a broader turf war. What worked in the East, he figured, would work even better nationwide. To his father, this was apostasy.

By 1982, the old man was talking about selling the business, threatening to put Vince out of a job. Borrowing money, Vince and his wife, Linda, made him and his partners an offer: four quarterly payments of about $250,000 each; if they missed any payment, they forfeited the company and whatever money they'd put in. "It was one of the original LBOs," says Linda. "We really bought it with the revenue that we were generating from the business itself." To boost cash flow, McMahon started promoting shows in other territories.

The enemies McMahon was making were often former wrestlers, sometimes rough men--"the type of guys who'd steal a hot stove and come back later for the lid," says veteran wrestling and boxing writer Bert Sugar. Jim Ross, now an announcer and talent scout at the WWF, was working for another promoter at the time, and remembers attending a kind of general war council in Kansas City to organize against the young upstart. In the men's room, says Ross, he overheard two promoters discussing an extreme remedy. "They started saying, 'One way we can put an end to this is to have the s.o.b. killed.' I'm sitting on the throne, creeping my legs up so they won't see me. I was dead certain they were serious." In the end, though, nothing came of the meeting, or the plot. Says Ross, "They couldn't cooperate on that, either."

One of the men McMahon put out of business was Verne Gagne, who ran the American Wrestling Alliance out of Minneapolis. "I have no love for Vince McMahon," says Gagne, now 73. In the 1970s and early '80s, Gagne built a rippled pantheon that included Hulk Hogan, Jesse (The Body) Ventura and Ric Flair, among others. Since the promot-ers mostly cooperated with one another--often to the detriment of the wrestlers--Gagne did not need to have his stars under contract. Then McMahon came along. "He took 37 of my people, including my announcer," Mean Gene Okerlund, says Gagne. "Then he came into my territory and used them against me."

By the mid-1980s, McMahon's scorched-earth tactics had winnowed the field of big-time wresting promoters to the WWF and a limping circuit called the National Wrestling Alliance. Through TV syndication, McMahon could build his wrestlers' profiles over all the old territories at the same time. He flooded independent stations with videotapes of his matches--often paying to have them aired--stoking demand for his wrestlers, not the local guy's. He made his money from the live gate, writing off TV costs as the price of promotion. It was risky, but this was the Reagan era. McMahon was developing a slicker, kid-friendly product, with cartoonish stars like Hulk Hogan doing com-mercials telling kids to eat their vitamins. Micromanaging every detail, from wrestlers' names to the color of their tights, he was pushing the grappling game farther from the scruffy realm of the carnival and closer to the work-aholic template of a high-budget, high-concept Hollywood star factory.

With the advent of pay-per-view technology, McMahon seized another emerging medium and trampled another wrestling dictum. Though the public may have been dubious (no one ever bet on pro wrestling), promoters had for decades presented their spectacle as honest sport. Accordingly, it fell under the purview of state athletic commissions. Now these commissions wanted to tax pay-per-view broadcasts. Vince and Linda repositioned their product as "sports entertainment," convincing authorities that their matches were scripted, the outcomes fixed. Though WWF folks paint this as a bold move in the direction of candor, really it was a way out of an onerous tax. A funny thing happened: wrestling began to seem less alien to mainstream entertainments and advertisers, crossing into music videos and network TV. It grew more popular than ever. For a 1987 show at the Pontiac Silverdome, the company sold 93,000 tickets, with more tuning in on pay-per-view.

Then trouble struck. In the early 1990s, the company found itself mired in a steroid scandal and allegations of sexual misconduct. As the WWF reeled, a newly reinvigorated National Wrestling Alliance, now owned by Ted Turner and rechristened World Championship Wrestling, gained ground by experimenting with higher production values and more sophisticated "story lines," the mock behind-the-scenes soap operas that were beginning to overshadow the grappling. McMahon, who casts the competition as a steel-cage match between himself and Billionaire Ted, was being beaten at his own game. "We didn't give the audience what they wanted," he admits. "We weren't relevant." Starting in July 1996, the WCW began 83 consecutive weeks ahead in the ratings war.

The WWF roared back, however, and now doubles the ratings of its competition. McMahon did it the old-fashioned way, with extra helpings of savvy and sleaze. Hiring writers from Conan O'Brien and MTV, McMahon has let his inner miscreant run free: one plot had a wrestler winning another's wife in a poker game, and sending videos of the consummation; for Thanksgiving, two women wrestled in gravy. He pushes the boundaries of civility as gleefully as his stars trample the rules of the ring: you never know what might happen. For the converted, this is a recipe for great television, but it is a gambit. When Coke pulled ads from "SmackDown!," McMahon cleaned up the show to get a PG rating. "It was Vince's decision," says UPN head Dean Valentine, who brought wrestling to the new network last summer. "I was supportive. I would have been supportive if he hadn't. I didn't have a problem before, I don't have one now." But even cleaned up, the WWF kept growing. A month after the change, he says, ratings are up 10 percent.

The old carny days are dead and gone. Last Monday, in the bowels of the First Union Center in Philadelphia, a couple of dozen "superstars" (WWF-speak for wrestlers) killed the hours before showtime watching a videotape of the previous night's pay-per-view, the Royal Rumble. Like any group of traveling athletes, they divided into cliques, each looking up to check his or her performance. When the wrestler Darren Drozdov entered the room in a wheelchair, paralyzed after fracturing his neck in the ring last October, they all applauded, then lined up to hug their fallen colleague. A languid camaraderie pervades. "When a new guy comes in, I try to give him financial tips," says Mick Foley, who doubles as both the lovable Mankind and the redneck psychopath Cactus Jack. "I hear Bradshaw knows a lot, but he delves into individual stocks, and they scare me." Bradshaw is John Layfield, a former NFL player who is known among the other wrestlers for bringing a bruising verisimilitude to his hits. The son of a banker, Layfield says he earned 88 percent on his investments last year and 73 percent the year before. "That just shouldn't happen."

McMahon is now in expansion mode once again. Though the stock price has lagged lately (analysts blame the advertiser imbroglio and an injury to star Stone Cold Steve Austin), last October's initial public offering still raised $170 million to expand the WWF's online activities. In his unprepossessing office at the WWF, Shane McMahon spins a basketball on his finger as he discusses the destiny of his father's company. Shane, 30, is the WWF's president of new media; his childhood friends wrestle as the Mean Street Posse, a group of rich kids from the snooty suburb of Greenwich, Conn.--which, in fact, they are. "We do over 6 million video streams a month," he says, most of them free of charge. Like his father at the same age, Shane represents the future of the family business. "We know that the Internet will be our own 24/7 network," says Linda. Shane worked intensely with techies at Microsoft to customize a new format for bringing the WWF's pay-per-views online. "The WWF has been a pioneer in using new media to bring events to broad audiences," says Dave Fester, director of marketing for Microsoft's Digital Media Division. "We've learned a lot working with them."

But McMahon's most cherished innovation remains his family--the on-screen version and the real. As TV's malevolent Mr. McMahon, he plays a natty corporate monster who would destroy anyone, including his wrestlers, in the pursuit of power. Here is a heel any wrestling fan can get behind--preferably to shove down the stairs. It is a role many said he'd been playing all along. The current story line has Stephanie and her "husband," Triple H, running the company with vindictive malice--a filial jihad that might ring a bell among students of the real McMahon saga. It is a gloriously multilevel play between what wrestlers call the work and the shoot, the staged and the real-real. And it suits the times. As Triple H says, in the post-cold-war era "there is no horror now. To the average person, the real-life enemy now is their boss." Shane has sided with Vince; Linda with Stephanie, a formidable team. But don't count the patriarch out yet. Though he is secretive about story lines, he allows himself a little laugh about the family drama to come. "I've got one coming up with Stephanie and Linda that Linda doesn't know about," he says, chuckling. Then, punctuating each word like a slap, he recites a line of prospective dialogue: "Oh, you bitch."

In wrestling, though, truth is often funkier than fiction. The McMahon family boasts of tight blood ties. Shane calls his father "my best friend, my hero, my boss, my mentor, my brother, my confidant, my buddy." When he married three years ago, Shane asked his father to be his best man. Stephanie, 23, sells ads, and is similarly devoted. Their mother, Linda McMahon, 51, has run the company's day-to-day affairs from the beginning. The first time Vince's brother, Rod, saw them all together, at Shane's wedding, he thought, "An outsider might have thought they were phony, they were so demonstrative. Maybe that comes from what [Vince] lacked growing up."

So at its heart, this is still a story about an American family. OK, there's power, money and some blood. And one thing is for sure--it's all turned up really loud.