With WrestleMania 39 set to kick off on April 1, and Polygon contributor Abraham Josephine Riesman’s new book Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America set to enter the ring on March 28, we’re spending the week grappling with pro wrestling — and everything it’s shaped. Riesman kicks off the short series with a look at McMahon’s unshakeable presence in the arena.
Professional wrestling buries its history with ease and enthusiasm.
It happens in the ring: An evil character suddenly does one noble act, becomes a good guy, and all past sins are forgiven by the crowd (until the next moral flip). It happens behind the scenes: “Documentaries” produced by World Wrestling Entertainment will wax poetic about a wrestler’s triumphs and never mention his domestic violence charges. There is no equivalent of ESPN Classic for wrestling; most matches held before the 1980s may as well not exist, as far as average viewers are concerned. The industry exists in an eternal present, with only a hazy sense of what came before.
This is all by design.
Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the newly reinstalled executive chairman of WWE and the single most important man in pro wrestling for four decades straight, is one of the more deft manipulators of reality in the history of popular entertainment. There is the standard manipulation of the viewer that comes with the territory; pro wrestling is, after all, only a legitimate sport in the way the Harlem Globetrotters are a legitimate basketball team. But there’s another layer.
Ever since 1983, when McMahon took control of the World Wrestling Federation from his father, he’s manifested Orwell’s dictum about those controlling the present controlling the past. He owns the tape archives of nearly all the companies he defeated during his reign, meaning no one can legally see what came before without his approval.
That makes sense — McMahon has never been nostalgic about the way wrestling was before he conquered it. From the very beginning of his tenure at the helm of WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF) in the early 1980s, he sought to destroy or buy all of his competitors. He succeeded: Within 10 years, only one major rival, Ted Turner, remained. Within 20 years, there was no one left to oppose him. McMahon reshaped wrestling in his image. Or so the story goes.
WWE often highlights McMahon’s deft kicking-down of the old system. For a century, pro wrestling had been a broadly lawless world of brutes and thieves. Wrestlers and promoters told the world that wrestling was an honest-to-god sport, but it was regarded by legislators and regulators as a silly enough enterprise that it was beneath their scrutiny. Rarely was there informed legislation protecting wrestlers or preventing fraud. As a result, wrestling developed its own code of ethics, which was only tangentially based on ethics or the law.
To put it bluntly, in a wrestling promotion, the promoter was able to do whatever the hell he wanted, so long as it didn’t piss off the promoter of a different region. Each of the few dozen wrestling “territories” was run as its own little totalitarian fiefdom. If a man had clawed his way to the ownership of a promotion, more often than not, he hadn’t gotten there by playing nice.
The promoter class faced no significant opposition. There has never been a union for wrestlers. They work as independent contractors, not employees, and thus have never had employer-provided health insurance. They were — and are — grossly underpaid compared to athletes in legitimate sports. The closest thing to a democracy that wrestling had was the consortium of promotions that McMahon destroyed, known as the National Wrestling Alliance, but it was an oligarchy of promoters in which wrestlers had no voice. For those wrestlers, there is no job security. There is no pension plan. There is no escape plan.
Abusive bosses, if they could weather the rough-and-tumble ecosystem, thrived in old-school wrestling. To find an example, look no further than Vince McMahon’s own father, Vincent James McMahon (known posthumously as Vince Sr.), whose territory stretched throughout most of the American northeast, including New York, Boston, and D.C. In popular memory, he is lauded for his broad smile and comforting charisma. He is regarded as one of the kinder promoters in old-school wrestling. But that’s a low bar.
Vince McMahon’s dad was a perfect example of the normalized sadism in pro wrestling.
He didn’t hold his workers in high esteem. “Wrestlers are like seagulls,” the father once told his son. “All they do is eat, shit, and squawk all day.” He was kinder than some, but even those who praised him noted his avarice. As wrestler/politician Jesse “The Body” Ventura once said, “You could be angry at [Vince Sr.] for a payoff; you’d walk in, you’d voice your complaint, you’d walk out, you’d feel great — and yet, you got no more money.” When the Justice Department made a brief crackdown on the NWA for its intimidation of non-NWA promoters, Vince Sr. bullied one of his wrestlers into changing his story in a deposition. “You know where your bread is buttered,” he’d said. “Self-preservation? Fuck it.”
But McMahon didn’t know Vince Sr. until he was 12 years old. The father had abandoned his wife and two sons down in North Carolina (he’d only met the woman because of his deployment during World War II). McMahon wasn’t even a McMahon for those early years — he bore the surname of his stepfather, going by Vinnie Lupton. According to McMahon, he was abused, both physically and sexually, in his home. One might expect such trauma to make a child unruly and violent — and, indeed, that is how McMahon has described his young self.
But contrary to McMahon’s own narrative about his youth, the peers of his that I found in North Carolina as I reported on my new book, Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, all told me that Vinnie Lupton was a quietly unassuming, generally nice child who may have aspired to getting into fights, but hardly ever did. The turning point came when Vinnie met his birth father, the wrestling promoter extraordinaire.
McMahon ended up working for his father, first as a liaison with local venues, then as a play-by-play announcer for TV broadcasts of wrestling shows. In fact, he got the announcer job after his predecessor, a venerated broadcaster named Ray Morgan, asked for a raise, was granted one by Vince Sr., and then was immediately fired. He hired his son to replace him — at the new pay rate. It sent a message: Vince Sr. was not someone to be screwed with. McMahon has often described the firing with joy and awe at his father’s cruelty: “I was just proud to be there and listen to all that, and proud of my dad, proud of the fact he told this guy to take off,” is how he once put it.
Vince Sr. was not overly kind to his son. According to McMahon, the older man only told him he loved him once, on his deathbed — and, like many Vince McMahon stories, there is plenty of reason to doubt the veracity of that anecdote. McMahon’s affection for his father was passionate, but always unrequited. It is my belief that this strained relationship, and the younger McMahon’s effort to emulate his father, led him to become the much-feared king of kings that he is today.
When McMahon took over the WWF (his father didn’t give it to him; he made the young man buy it in a precarious and punishing payment schedule) in 1983, he proceeded to destroy the system that his father had been such an integral part of. He broke all the territorial rules, invading other promoters’ regions with live shows and surreptitiously purchased television slots. The NWA was up in arms. Vince Sr. repeatedly tried to stop his son, to no avail.
Today, the WWF of the ’80s is remembered as a kind of golden age, when the content was wholesome and the wrestlers were superheroes. But, at the time, longtime fans saw McMahon’s national march as a terrible disruption of the ecosystem. His brand of wrestling was campier and less believable than nearly anything that had preceded it, outraging fans who took the art form seriously. As one emblematic reader of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter put it in a 1984 letter to the editor, McMahon posed “a real threat to the stability of pro wrestling, which obviously was doing quite well until he decided to overrun the sport like Hannibal.”
Or, to put it another way: “McMahon Jr. is the modern-day Hitler of professional wrestling, and if you told him that to his face, he’d take you out and buy you the biggest steak you could eat,” said one of Vince Sr.’s favorite wrestlers, Buddy Rogers. “He thrives on the people around him hating his guts. He loves it.”
McMahon eventually succeeded in destroying the structures that had governed wrestling for decades. But there was one crucial aspect of the old system that he didn’t get rid of: the abuses. Indeed, the abuses are what he loves the most.
McMahon has made himself so singularly important for wrestling that few dare speak up against him. Even after a wave of credible accusations of sexual misconduct against McMahon this past summer forced him to step down as CEO and chairman, it was hard to find a single wrestler or industry hanger-on who would say they believed any of the victims. Even people from rival company All Elite Wrestling (far cooler than WWE, but also vastly smaller) didn’t make hay of those allegations, likely fearing that they might tick off McMahon and lose any future shot of working for him. There is no serious whistleblower contingent within wrestling.
The text of Ringmaster was finalized in September of last year, while the wrestling magnate was out of the driver’s seat and out of the spotlight. As such, it had to factually refer to his tenure as the only hand guiding the company in the past tense. But this was an accident of timing. Even when he was “gone,” I knew he’d come back. After all, he remained the single largest individual shareholder of the publicly traded WWE, and he controlled 80% of shareholder votes. He never stopped being the ultimate power in wrestling.
Sure enough, he came back. A few months ago, McMahon executed a stunning takeover of the company, installing himself as executive chairman and seemingly either forcing his daughter Stephanie to give up her interim co-CEO position or having plans so repugnant that Stephanie resigned in disgust. Either way, she’s gone and the future of the firm is deeply uncertain. McMahon, despite denying all interview requests, has pushed the company toward a sale of some kind, or at least toward going private. Nobody, not even veteran wrestling reporters with trusted sources within WWE, seems to have a clear story on what’s going to happen. Vince’s mind is a black box these days.
Not only was McMahon never truly gone, his father’s ethos never was, either.
Wrestling today has a glossy sheen. WWE shows don’t look like sweaty barroom brawls between bloated non-athletes; they are high-impact, high-octane spectacles accompanied by slick camerawork, enormous LED screens, and advanced live CGI for the viewers at home. But there’s still no union. There’s still no health insurance. There’s still no retirement plan. The pay is still garbage (the average working wrestler makes about $50,000 a year, if they’re lucky). Promoters are still the supreme dictators of their companies. It’s just that there’s only one hegemonic promoter now: the man who annihilated all the others and took the power for himself.
Wrestling is still a shady, backroom industry. But Vince McMahon learned how to warp and misdirect public perception; WWE is now widely seen as just another entertainment company. And, in a way, it is: All culture industries are rapacious in their ways, but wrestling just does it all out in the open, and at maximum levels of intensity. The wrestling industry today is a rabid animal disguised as a gentleman, standing on its hind legs and holding a champagne glass.
Wrestling is beautiful, but its industry is grotesque. If it is to thrive as an art form, it must learn its own history, so that it might liberate itself from it.
I firmly believe that pro wrestling will last long beyond our ongoing civilizational collapse. It’s magnificently low-tech: All you really need is a mattress, an audience, and two people willing to risk it all for entertainment. Even if the grid goes down, even if capitalism is no more, the practice will endure, thank God. Wrestling will survive the apocalypse. Indeed, in surviving Vince, it already has.