Wrestling magnate Vince McMahon has earned untold millions by convincing people to pay him for the right to witness his own (possibly deserved) humiliations.
Given what we know about the “worked” nature of professional wrestling, bodies would seem to be of little significance. If the wrestler Big Show, who weighs upwards of 400 pounds, can be ordered by his employer to “put over” (i.e., lose to) Daniel Bryan, who weighs 190 pounds, why should physical appearances matter at all? And yet, since the early heyday of promoter-booked wrestling in the 1920s, bodies have been even more important than the actual abilities that those bodies possess. Why else would someone like Wayne “Big” Munn, a towering 6’6” pro footballer who couldn’t wrestle a lick, be handed a title belt by promoter Toots Mondt? This is one of the most fascinating of wrestling’s many multi-layered ironies: the way things seem (as in the shape and composition of a competitor’s body) is not how these things are, since a man the size of “Big” Munn or the Big Show could conceivably have no wrestling skill at all. And yet the way things seem often determines how they are, as in the case of acromegalic behemoth Andre the Giant’s extraordinary popularity with the fans: how could a man his size ever lose to anyone, most would think. Few have understood this perverse logic quite like second-generation wrestling impresario Vincent K. McMahon, who seized upon the exploding popularity of bodybuilding at the tail end of the 1970s to launch a promotion in which style has almost always trumped substance.
McMahon remains loyal to East Carolina University, his alma mater.
McMahon, who played football at East Carolina University and grew up admiring the fulsome male figure of Steve Reeves, had engaged in bodybuilding-style weight training since the early 1960s. The success of a handful of unskilled bodybuilder types—primarily immobile, well-tanned crowd pleaser “Polish Power” Ivan Putski and sweet-talking villain “Superstar” Billy Graham—convinced McMahon that viewers would doubtless share his preference for huge, tight, and extremely vascular bodies that were, like his own, enhanced by the various testosterone cocktails being developed in pharmaceutical laboratories around the world. “In our business,” he would later tell the Joe Weider publication Muscle and Fitness, “you have to be larger than life, but not just physically—it’s the psychology of it, too.”
Of course, the deployment of these supersized heroes would itself be veiled by numerous overlapping deceits. Terry “Hulk” Hogan, a bronze-hued giant of partial Puerto Rican descent, would serve as McMahon’s standard-bearer throughout the 1980s, generating enormous pay-per-view buy-rates while championing a lifestyle that consisted of such “demandments” (the “Hulkster’s” term, not mine) as vitamin-taking, prayer-saying, and regular exercise. Hogan, of course, was at this same time under strict orders to remain “juiced” on whatever performance-enhancing cocktails were prescribed by George Zahorian, a Pennsylvania-based physician and one of the coterie of friendly “croakers” (i.e., prescription-writing doctors) who served at McMahon’s pleasure.
McMahon’s obsession with cartoonish theatrics and muscular size overshadowed the quality of the in-ring performance, and even legitimate grapplers such as the bulldog-jowled former National Wrestling Alliance champion Harley Race came to be saddled with ludicrous gimmicks and ring outfits. Ken Patera, a 1972 Olympian and putative “World’s Strongest Man” who once remarked that the outcome of a weightlifting exhibition would turn on “whoever’s steroids were better,” found himself put off by McMahon’s behaviors and decided to retire in late 1988 after McMahon squeezed his thigh in the locker room and told him he had better start “hitting the roids” again.
The WWF brand, saddled as it was with a roster of lumbering musclemen, reached its nadir during the early 1990s, at which point McMahon found himself enmeshed in the federal trial of George Zahorian. Zahorian stood accused of distributing the steroids and other performance enhancers that had, owing to the legislative legerdemain of Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, recently been listed as controlled substances. The trial spiraled out of control, with Zahorian’s legal team leaking the names of various WWF competitors who were told to “use [steroids] or they don’t participate.” Among these names were “Hulk” Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, two of the federation’s most noteworthy performers.
Phil Donahue turns the spotlight on an embattled Vince McMahon in this 1992 interview.
McMahon, who was also deeply invested in a professional bodybuilding federation that he had founded to compete with Joe Weider’s International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB), weathered the storm by imposing mandatory steroid testing for his performers (though not for himself, of course) and beginning to “push” (i.e., move to the top of the television programming and pay-per-view events) smaller, leaner grapplers such as Bret “Hitman” Hart and Shawn “The Heartbreak Kid” Michaels. But although this period in the federation’s history, which ran from roughly 1993 to 1996, produced many classic matches, it saw the WWF lose ground to the increasingly edgy World Championship Wrestling (WCW) outfit owned by billionaire Ted Turner and operated by innovative general manager Eric Bischoff.
It was at this juncture that McMahon made another very body-conscious choice: instead of the steroid-enhanced bodies (many of which were now appearing on WCW television, owing to Bischoff’s preference for hiring WWF veterans such as “Hulk” Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage as a way of impressing the “smartened up” fans who followed backstage goings-on via the Internet rumor boards), he would give them phantasmagoric bodies. Drawing on lessons learned from the modest success of the small Eastern Pennsylvania/New Jersey-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), McMahon began building his federation around the premise, championed in years past by proto-hardcore Southern promoters like Eddie Graham and Bill Watts, that “matches had to go red before they went green.” To this end, McMahon spotlighted oft-injured risk-takers (Mick “Mankind/Cactus Jack/Dude Love” Foley, the Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boys), extraordinary racial and ethnic caricatures (a “Godfather” who arrived at the ring accompanied by his “Hos” and served in the faux-African-American nationalist organization known as “the Nation of Domination”), and a seemingly endless array of anonymous female “Diva” performers, nearly all of whom conformed—if the numerous sexual harassment lawsuits are to be believed—to McMahon’s exacting standards of beauty.
Owing to the terrible press he had received throughout a career spent profiting from the pretend-yet-real violence inflicted on bodies that were neither insured nor unionized and hoping to capitalize on the tremendous “heat” (i.e., fan dislike) that he had earned by stripping Bret “Hitman” Hart of his world title, McMahon also decided that there was considerable money to be made by putting his own body on the line. Over the course of a half-decade run as the WWF’s top heels, McMahon and his son Shane would take some of the nastiest “bumps” (i.e., feigned falls designed to simulate injury, and which often result in actual injury) in the federation’s history. They would do so while giving the WWF/WWE’s largely working-class demographic the ultimate “heel”: the seemingly untouchable owner, who wielded the power of life and death over the bodies of his employees.
Investigative reporter John Stossel “exposes” pro wrestling in this 1984 segment from ABC’s “20/20.”
The difference between “kayfabe” and openly “worked” wrestling had never mattered much to McMahon. He never met a midget, obese hillbilly, or ex-luchador in a chicken suit he wouldn’t book on his pay-per-view card. In the opinions of former promoters Bill Watts and Larry Matysik, the WWWF/WWF matches were always the worst in the country. With the exception of Bob Backlund’s six-year run on top in the late 1970s, there was no pretense of “real” wrestling made in most WWWF main events: Ivan Putski-versus-Jesse Ventura arm wrestling matches, Bruno Sammartino bearhugs, and “Superstar” Billy Graham bodybuilding pose-downs were the order of the day. Thus, although McMahon may have ordered “Dr. D” David Schultz to rough up investigative reporter John Stossel in 1984 when Stossel was attempting to expose the business, he had no problem admitting in 1989 that professional wrestling was mere “entertainment” in order to obviate the ongoing need to pay the state athletic commissions that had once constituted an essential part of the “kayfabe” sham. In a statement to the New Jersey Senate, which was contemplating whether to remove professional wrestling from the purview of its athletic commission, the WWF declared that it was in the business of producing “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.”
Mind you, McMahon was likely not happy to see David Meltzer sitting across from him on a 1992 episode of The Phil Donahue Show, listening to Meltzer and one of his colleagues level accusations about McMahon’s role in the Zahorian steroid contretemps as well as Pat Patterson’s backstage sexual harassment of male midget wrestlers. But he maintained his composure during the show, rebutting Meltzer’s charges while sticking to a handful of talking points—a kind of pressure under fire honed, no doubt, over the course of a lifetime spent on the receiving end of lawsuits and criminal investigations. Thus, when WCW head booker Eric Bischoff managed to increase his promotion’s ratings in the mid-1990s by playing into the hands of these tabloid writers, hiring old and unproductive WWF wrestlers just to bolster “smark” (i.e., smartened-up fan, as in the case of fans who read Meltzer’s newsletter) interest, McMahon stayed the course. While Bischoff was hiring washed-up grapplers to headline his cards, McMahon offered the fans something different: vulgar bloodbaths, plenty of T and A, and relative unknowns who, as with “Hulk” Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage before them, became stars in principal part because McMahon gave them the opportunity to shine.
And eventually his vision of the product–in his words, a “middle-class” vision, a vision that “was all about Peoria”–would prevail in the so-called “Monday Night Wars” of 1996-2001 exactly as it had during the WWF’s national expansion in the 1980s. And make no mistake about it: at base, McMahon was the WWF. During this period, he was the federation’s chief “heel.” “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were important actors in this “Attitude Era” drama, but McMahon was its author. So we come again to noted wrestling fan Roland Barthes, who had famously observed that “we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” “The reader,” in Barthes’ opinion, “is the space on which all quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost…[and] this destination cannot be personal.”
The WWF, which now boasts a sizeable creative team and a support staff, does not really belong to the “readers” of the “texts” that it produces. Professional wrestling in its postmodern form, once a fragmented and highly diverse activity with dozens of regional variants and hundreds of hometown heroes, is now the exclusive property of a single billionaire author. It remains an idiosyncratic one-family operation, capable of making moves ranging from the brilliant, such as hiring writers to tweet in-character for the wrestlers on Twitter (thus confusing even those Meltzer and Keller-informed “smarks” who look to the Internet for reliable information), to the ridiculous, as when McMahon served as the central character in the 2001-2008 “Kiss My Ass Club” storyline wherein various employees were made to kiss his bare or thong-clad rear end in order to save their jobs.
William Regal becomes the first member of Vince McMahon’s “Kiss My Ass Club.”
Yet this storyline, like the incomplete, puffery-ridden “McMahon” documentary, is the key to understanding the central joke at the heart of professional wrestling. Once upon a time, promoters paid men to pretend to fight, audiences paid to watch these putative combatants compete in what most assumed were real matches, and the compensated parties laughed all the way to the bank, with the promoters laughing the loudest. The “Kiss My Ass Club” allows us to see how McMahon has modified this paradigm. In it, wrestlers (who are acting) are forced to watch as McMahon (also acting) drops his pants in a slow, sexual way, usually shaking his hips and buttocks and performing “tricks” with his ass, such as flexing it to demonstrate the impeccable conditioning of his glutes and hamstrings. The kisses ranged from extremely deep—the English wrestler William Regal planted his lips directly between McMahon’s buttocks—to furtive and violent, as when the midget Hornswaggle (playing a leprechaun-outfitted character) bit McMahon on the ass after McMahon had joked about his tan lines and flatulence.
Vince McMahon becomes a member of his own club after being forced to kiss the posterior of the enormous Samoan-American wrestler Rikishi Fatu.
This is, I assume, meant to be both silly, because we are forced to watch as muscular men kiss another muscular man’s bare ass, and also infuriating, since the almighty “boss,” that Armani suit-clad embodiment of capital, is humiliating his workers in front of his largely working-class audience—the people from “Peoria” whom he has claimed to understand so well. We fans are left to wait for McMahon to receive his cosmic comeuppance, with what Roland Barthes described as the “spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” playing out to its obvious and necessary conclusion. Yet we must consider the following: the person whose ass is being kissed is actual WWE CEO Vince McMahon, acting as storyline WWE CEO Vince McMahon, and the people kissing his ass are his actual employees, acting as his storyline employees. These men, non-union contract workers who either have to purchase their own health insurance or else have none at all, are quite literally kissing their boss’s ass to preserve their livelihood (and, with the exception of the very small Ring of Honor and Total Nonstop Action promotions, this boss is a monopsonist: he’s the only buyer around for whatever services you are selling). And, as mentioned supra, even when this particular installment of the “Kiss My Ass Club” finally terminates and McMahon is humiliated by being made to kiss an ass of his own (usually the ass of an extremely obese wrestler kept on the roster for such purposes), we reward him in ratings or ticket sales of pay-per-view buys for the right to witness said humiliation.
McMahon, though occasionally bloodied and sometimes even seriously injured, has thus succeeded in having the last word on this matter. Perhaps eating his scripted words amounts to some form of “Justice” and vindication in Barthes’ sense, but in a business where everything is a “work,” where nothing is as it seems—and where this is known now to be the case, where McMahon has himself gone on the record as declaring that it is a “work”—what could be more satisfying than to profit through one’s one own stage-managed public scourging? In the end, the joke is on everyone but Vince McMahon, and I am sure that, should he deign to consider the matter at all, he would find it riotously funny.
The fantastic illustration that accompanies this piece was drawn by Pittsburgh-based graphic designer Emily Emaline. Follow her on Twitter (@EmilyEmaline) and “like” her on Facebook to see more of her work!