Many of us know the story of third-generation sports-entertainment promoter Vince McMahon, his inheritance of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), transition to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and its aggressive expansion across wrestling circuit territories against all old school tradition, before standing alone and untouchable as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
The arguments can go back and forth around the issue of whether McMahon gave the art form a much-needed boost through revolutionising the business despite refusing to honour his late father’s vow never to compete with regional promoters; whether he truly was the underdog against Ted Turner’s petty and unprofessional vendetta against him to the point of losing money just to harm McMahon. What is important is that we recognise the motivation behind many of the decisions made by Vince and his wife Linda through the years.
What do we mean when we say Vince McMahon “revolutionised” the wrestling industry in the 1980s? That word always gets thrown around a lot, even in daily life, but why is it applied to what Vince did?
Well, first of all, he didn’t just aggressively expand his promotion to compete with other regional promoters such as those under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) – where each promotion had a champion, with big bucks to be made when champions representing regions squared-off in the squared circle. Vince also used his high-risk approach to gamble record amounts of money in pitching the product as show-business, bring in celebrities to WrestleMania, and offer lucrative merchandise revenues and royalties to wrestlers once loyal to their territorial promoters. Prior to WrestleMania, Vince’s blue-eyed boy Hulk Hogan (formerly of the Minnesota-based AWA) had captured the WWF’s version of the world championship after defeating the former Iranian amateur wrestling star the Iron Sheik – after Sheik allegedly rejected AWA promoter Verne Gagne’s offer of $100,000 to severely injure Hogan’s leg and thus end his career (and the WWF’s surge). Hulkamania made record amounts of money – for Hogan, Vince, and the WWF.
At the second WrestleMania in 1986, Hogan earned more than the rest of the entire performing roster combined, who only failed to form a union because of overnight star Hogan’s rat-out to Vince himself. This came at a time when Vince was lobbying for state athletic commissions to reduce or remove regulations on pro wrestling on the basis of its predetermined art form, angering many old timers by “outing” the secrets of the supposed sport and essentially breaking the business’s “magic circle.” Up until then, kayfabe had meant that pro wrestling personalities almost never acknowledged the planned nature of the matches and angles. The lobbying to this day has never been anything less than immensely rewarding – such regulations have diminished, the result being the removal of TV taxes and state athletic commission physicals at events.
Despite the failed FBI investigation and subsequent court case of Vince McMahon and the WWF in the 1990s on the basis of alleged drug-pushing of performance-enhancing steroids – where Hulk Hogan testified in court that he took steroids of his own accord and not under order from Vince – one thing became evident: in a business where wrestlers were performing as many as six nights a week around the world for Vince’s WWF, drug abuse was certainly rampant, with talent relying on stimulants, sedatives, muscle relaxants, painkillers and recreational drugs just to travel from a hotel to the next city, find a restaurant and gym, and then perform all over again, before doing the same the next day.
After the scandal, the WWF lost top stars such as the Ultimate Warrior, Sid Justice, and British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith in the wake of its introduced drug testing policy which essentially helped collapse Vince’s failing World Bodybuilding Federation project as well. However, by the end of the 1990s, the drug testing had quietly disappeared, but nobody noticed, let alone really reported on it – and it had gone by the time internet sites devoted to pro wrestling had emerged anyway. By then, Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) had enjoyed massive influence on the WWF and pro wrestling as a whole, and performers were diving from greater heights, falling through tables, and taking chair shots to the skull with much more regularity – not to mention wrestling matches for quarter or half an hour with massive frames putting great strain on not just joints and muscles, but also hearts.
When Chris Benoit lost his mind and killed his wife, his son, and finally himself over the course of one weekend in 2007, corporate news claimed Benoit had experienced a bout of “‘roid rage” without acknowledging the fact that, firstly, ‘roid rage doesn’t last for days, and, secondly, that Benoit – who notoriously took dangerous chair shots to the back of his head – had brain damage. As usual, the mainstream media found it easier to portray pro wrestlers as drugged-up neanderthals rather than skilled performers with too little rights as workers, and this always simply perpetuates the damage being done, making it an individual issue of immorality rather than a symptom from corporate exploitation.
Genuine concerns are to be raised from the alarming statistics surrounding the other deaths from this era: 38 year-old world titleholder Eddie Guerrero’s heart finally succumbed to the pressure of years of drug abuse; Lance “Garrison” Cade died of drug-induced heart failure at 29; brain-damaged Andrew “Test” Martin died of a drug overdose at 33; Umaga died of a heart attack at the age of 36 after taking a cocktail of drugs; 35 year-old industry trailblazer Brian Pillman was so heavily sedated on painkillers he never woke during his heart attack, which proved fatal; 42 year-old hardcore monster Mike Awesome committed suicide; Louie Spicolli portrayed the Kurt Cobain-inspired Rad Radford character before, at age 27, actually choking to death on his own vomit after taking too many muscle relaxants with wine…the list goes on and on.
The understandable argument, of course, is that Vince and his wife Linda – despite his extra-marital affairs – have together run the WWF/E for years, and from it made a very healthy profit, enjoying great luxury in their Greenwich, Connecticut home while their company’s conditions caused deaths, or at least considerably contributed to them.
The product’s adult-orientated offerings following the 1993 inception of Monday Night Raw and its later ECW-influenced content of sex and violence was – not coincidentally – toned-down around 2008 when Linda became increasingly interested in politics and rose to the state’s Board of Education – then spending an incredible $50,000,000 of her wealth made from WWE to leave the business behind and run for the Senate. With policies around tax cuts and deregulation for businesses, it’s easy to understand why.
Linda’s campaign was damaged by the infamous “Tip-Off Memo” which revealed that, after steroids became illegal in 1988 but doctor George Zahorian was still attending WWF events to sell them to wrestlers under the counter, she sent a message to Vince’s right-hand man Pat Patterson suggesting Zahorian was facing imminent investigation and it was no longer “a good idea.” She failed to win a seat that time, but will likely come back again from a different angle – and WWE stands much to gain from her involvement.
WWE repeatedly states that their wrestlers are “independent contractors” – self-employed freelancers. You will find very few self-employed people who are contractually bound to only carry out work for one company; the point of being self-employed is that you pick and choose work where you want, when you want. WWE contracts talent for a set period of time, prevents them from working with other promotions, has say over their public appearances, and even inserts no-compete clauses into contracts to stop them leaving WWE one day and starting for, say, TNA the next.
WWE even influences how its workers dress when not at work. Despite wrestlers paying for much of their accommodation and travel themselves, when WWE fly them abroad, they have to travel standard class, not first-class, yet expect them to wear suits. When CM Punk confided to the Undertaker that since John Cena didn’t wear a suit, he shouldn’t be expected to either, Undertaker went and pulled a Hogan – going to tell Vince what was said. The result? Punk was booked to lose the top title at the next pay-per-view show…to Undertaker himself. He then spent months being buried, losing to sub-par wrestlers until he threatened to leave the company when his contract expired.
All of these sound like the conditions of a full-time company employee. So why do the McMahons and WWE insist on calling the wrestlers “independent contractors”? Because by that rationale, they’re not legally obligated to paying for such things as pension plans and health insurance. Despite the profits made, WWE care more about their shareholders than the talented individuals who generate the revenue in the first place. Now of course, that is commonplace in capitalist society. But Linda’s motivation for political success is to pass policies that reinforce Vince’s ability to exploit the wrestlers.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
By having an offseason for each wrestler – through, say, storyline suspensions or injury angles – talent would be less inclined to sustain legitimate injuries, enjoy recuperation time, and probably retain morale more. The stars who’ve hit the sidelines for months on end in recent years – Batista, Triple H, Rey Mysterio, and, without recovery, Edge – could have likely contributed more time to the company had they been given more benefits. In turn, with creative actually being prepared for a wrestler’s departure from stories and thus writing a better, more sustainable product, more money would be made long-term, even if shareholders may frown upon the expensive changes in company policy at first.
The McMahons and WWE need to change the cycle. Whether this is realised by daughter Stephanie and son-in-law Triple H – the heirs to the empire – remains to be seen.