Vince McMahon is America
If one man could be chosen as a symbol of the USA, who would it be? Washington? Wayne? Presley? Obama? For me, a leading candidate is Vincent Kennedy McMahon. In his virtues and his vices, he exemplifies the staggering ambition and excess of America.
McMahon’s newest scandal – one of countless that have plagued him – is, at least according to our current knowledge, among the less sensational. Thus, it could well bring him down. Legends tend to die young or die pathetically.
Apparently, McMahon entered into an affair with one of his office staff – and then paid her a whopping $3,000,000 for her silence. That her salary doubled for no obvious professional reason is what could bring down McMahon businesswise. That she was apparently passed like “a toy” to McMahon’s longtime employee John Laurinaitus makes it especially grim.
According to the Wall Street Journal an investigation has “unearthed other, older nondisclosure agreements involving claims by former female WWE employees of misconduct by Mr. McMahon.” The nature of these claims will be determined. Payoffs can exist for convenience rather than as proof of human guilt. Still, it looks like McMahon has indulged a depressingly human vice for a freak of nature.
McMahon grew up in poverty with his mum and her abusive boyfriend. “It’s unfortunate that he died before I could kill him,” McMahon said later, “I would have enjoyed that.”
Poverty was the making of McMahon. It spurred him on. “You never forget the rainy, cold days when you’d have to go so badly and the only place was outside to the privy.” McMahon had something. He has a connection. His absent father was wrestling royalty – the promoter of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF).
When McMahon was older, he latched onto his dad’s business – showing a talent for promotion when he pushed his father to remove the excessive second “W” from its name.
McMahon bought the WWF from his father in 1982. Reversion to the mean is common, not least in wrestling. No one would have been at all surprised if the WWF had floundered under McMahon Jr. Actually, McMahon was even more ambitious, innovative and ruthless than Vince Sr.
Previously, wrestling had been defined by its “territory system”. As McMahon contemptuously said, years afterwards:
In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed. There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S. and if I hadn't bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling. I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords.
McMahon signed all the best talent, toured nationally, and pursued television deals wherever he could. This defied tradition and accepted norms but it would be unfair to see him as a giant stomping on the weak. He risked financial ruin and professional disgrace (and being killed, which rival promoters, unbeknownst to him, considered doing).
This was never truer that when he organised Wrestlemania. This sports entertainment extravaganza could have bankrupted the WWF if it had flopped. Featuring Mr T joining up with McMahon’s Adonic star Hulk Hogan, it was a huge success.
To detail every achievement of McMahon’s would take a book. He triumphed in the “wrestling war” with Ted Turner-backed World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s, with his shift to more violent and sexual content. To the chagrin of many of his hardcore fans, he then toned the product down for its “PG Era”. What he lost in viewers, he won in sponsorships, advertising and merchandise.
His “WWE Network” – the World Wrestling Federation having been renamed World Wrestling Entertainment after facing problems with the World Wildlife Fund – sounded like a dumb idea in 2014. Who wanted to watch wrestling all day? Not even I did and I stayed up till 1am to watch it. Soon, everyone had Netflix and Amazon Prime and the WWE Network was a big success.
But McMahon has power walked into a lot of problems. A big personality can come with tremendous strengths and tremendous weaknesses. Indeed, strengths and weaknesses can be one and the same. McMahon’s titanic ambition with such that conquering his own industry was not enough for him. He wanted more.
So, he sought mainstream fame. Unfortunately, wrestling is all he knows. His American football league, the XFL, was a historic flop. (I suspect I know more about football than McMahon and I don’t know the difference between a linebacker and a tend end.) His movie business, WWE Studios, has produced more trash than a crisp packet factory.
His arrogance, which gave him such peerless ambition, has encouraged him to keep a stranglehold on the creative direction of WWE even as his storytelling skills have waned. The WWE product is like a meal of random tasteless ingredients - and there’s far too much of it. The brand is strong enough that McMahon and his team have no incentive to build stars (who, like Hulk Hogan and the Rock, could then desert them). Without stars there is no emotional investment.
Besides all this, McMahon is not a nice person. Can one be a nice person and a successful businessman? I’m not sure. Still, this fella takes the piss. A schoolboy sense of humour drives him to humiliate loyal employees onscreen, such as in his relentless embarrassment of the long-suffering announcer Jim “JR” Ross.
What is good for business almost always comes before what is good for individuals. I would say McMahon has mafioso tendencies except that he has no qualms about sacking members of his family. Brian Pillman, who had been self-medicating to allow himself to work through injuries, died in 1997. For some reason, McMahon thought that it would be a good idea to quiz his wife on live TV just a day afterwards.
Other business and personal scandals are more mysterious. Dark rumours haunt the history of the federation. How bad did the abuse of ring boys by gay WWF employees get in the early 1990s? How much did the WWF know about its star performer Jimmy Snuka’s alleged murder of his girlfriend Nancy Argento in 1983? Did McMahon assault WWF referee Rita Chatterton in 1986? (In fairness, veteran wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer doubts that accusation.)
McMahon has had a persecution complex ever since he was charged with distributing steroids in the early 90s. He frames any criticism as a kind of vendetta against him and his company. Still, he has been fortunate not to have been driven out of business time and again. If an actor flipped out and killed their wife and child, and they could be seen getting concussions in film after film, one suspects it would be ruinous. Exactly this happened with the wrestler Chris Benoit – one of whose signature moves had been a diving headbutt of all things – but the WWE erased him from their archives, banned explicit chair shots to the head and sailed on. The artificial nature of the product appears to mean that business scandals are not taken all that seriously. After all, it’s just wrestling. It isn’t real is it.
Still, for all his sins, McMahon remains perversely impressive. His commitment to his work is almost superhuman. I mentioned the business risks that he has taken but what about the personal risks? What other billionaire would allow themselves to whacked with a steel chair, whacked with a steel bedpan and almost decapitated by a ring rope. Keen as he is to humiliate others, he is also willing to be humiliated. What other billionaire would pretend to wet themselves while being threatened with a pop gun or consent to being thrust head first into the backside of a giant athlete. McMahon’s commitment to his role almost defies belief. This is a man who tore both of his quads and stayed in character.
As the evil Mr McMahon (where he was essentially playing himself) the owner of the WWF became one of the great performers of our age. I’m not being remotely facetious when I say that his “life sucks and then you die” promo sends shivers up my spine. It is an absolute masterclass in oratory.
Everyone who knows McMahon says that two things occupy him: working and working out. According to former WWE agent Arn Anderson, McMahon wakes early, goes to the gym, works, goes to the gym again and goes to bed. Even in his seventies, McMahon has been squatting hundreds of kilograms.
Tales of his monomania are legendary. Veteran wrestling mind Jim Cornette, once a member of the WWF creative team, recalls sitting in McMahon’s house in a meeting when a man came to fix the TV. “Back there pal,” said McMahon. The man emerged ten second later. “Mr McMahon, the mute button was on. You have to turn it off here.” “Thanks pal,” said McMahon, handing him a hundred dollar tip and returning to his work. You wouldn’t want to have the same drive but you wish you had a fifth of it.
The world needs at least some amount of psychotic dedication. It is how things get done. Of course, it should be balanced by honesty and kindness - and there is no contradiction in saying that. It was not necessary for Mrs Pillman to be dragged onto TV or for Chris Benoit to take such damage to the head. Yet a world full of nice, unassuming people would stagnate. We need some absolute maniacs around.
That maniacal spirit is America. That maniacal spirit is Vince McMahon’s. No one is above responsibility. If he has done wrong then he should face consequences. But he has muscled his way into the history books through sheer force of will. Thank God he was born into professional wrestling and not, say, Latin American politics.