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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Being Vince McMahon
October 1, 2005 by Jake Hamar


You either love him or hate him. If you are a casual fan of this business, then you probably believe he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If you claim to be a wrestling traditionalist, then you probably loathe him. Nonetheless, Vince McMahon revolutionized the wrestling business.

Back in the early 1980's, pro wrestling was still being presented in the tattered, smoky arenas and armories across the United States. Stars such as Dick The Bruiser, The Crusher, Bob Backlund, Harley Race, Wahoo McDaniel and Verne Gagne were still the top dogs in the industry. Wrestling promotions from San Francisco to Savannah catered their product to adults. Action figures and foam fingers were non-existent. There was no "Hulk Hogan's Rock 'N' Wrestling" cartoon or WrestleMania" video game on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Vince McMahon Jr. was a wrestling announcer for his father's northeast wrestling promotion the World Wide Wrestling Federation, covering cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Providence, Baltimore, and other cities around New England and the upper East Coast. As a commentator, Vince was good; as a matter of fact, he was a runner-up to Gordon Solie for Pro Wrestling Illustrated Announcer of the Year in 1977.

But Vince had a passion to run his own wrestling company. In 1982, he purchased Capitol Wrestling from his father, Vince McMahon Sr. Within a year and a half time span, Vince McMahon managed to get his product on national cable on the USA Network, and run the WWF's first few west coast shows, in San Jose and Los Angeles in 1983. These were just the beginning stages of Vince McMahon's plan to take over the wrestling industry.

In late 1983, Vince started to look to other promotions for his new stars. Hulk Hogan, unhappy with the situation with Verne Gagne and the AWA, signed with the WWF. He showed up on Vince's TV to rescue Bob Backlund from a near certain pummeling at the hands of all three Wild Samoans. The crowd went absolutely berserk, and that would lead Hogan to defeat the Iron Sheik for the WWF Championship and cement his status as the biggest star of the 1980's.

Vince also lured away Paul Orndorff from Georgia Championship Wrestling, Roddy Piper from Mid-Atlantic, Bobby Heenan from the AWA and others. Promoters like Ole Anderson and Verne Gagne cried foul. But the fact of the matter was, Vince had more money and more television exposure for his new stars than they could ever think of. Vince expanded his television show into St. Louis, Toronto, and Minneapolis. Of course, that didn't make Verne happy that Vince was coming into his backyard, but at the time, the Minnesota fans still loved Hogan, and he drew big houses with Dr. D David Schultz and George Steele. What made promoters really angry was that Vince would either offer to buy out heir promotion or simply start running his shows in their territory and eventually put them out of business. He did this in Montreal, where Dino Bravo, Gino Brito, Rick Martel and Tony Muley sold their Lutte International promotion to McMahon in 1986. He also did this to Stu Hart in Calgary. That led to the British Bulldogs and Hart Foundation leaving Stampede Wrestling and debuting in the WWF.

The one thing Vince tried to do to distinguish his company from other promotions was to combine the athleticism of a wrestling match with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. He brought Cyndi Lauper in from the music world and teamed her up with Hulk Hogan, Wendi Richter and Captain Lou Albano against the likes of Roddy Piper and Fabulous Moolah. Mr. T was brought in to be in Hulk Hogan's corner. Vince coined this mixture "sports entertainment". It was a formula he would never shy away from.

Around 1985, the WWF was the top dog in the business, and it was only going to get hotter. Vince put on the first WrestleMania on closed circuit television, and it was a big success. Also, that year, he put the WWF on Pay-Per-View; the Wrestling Classic, a one night tournament from Chicago headlined with a Hulk Hogan title defense against his hated nemesis Rowdy Roddy Piper. It was also around this time the WWF got on network television with NBC's "Saturday Night's Main Event."

From 1985 through 1991, no one could touch the WWF. They drew massive houses, had big pay-per-view buys and sold millions in merchandise. If you were a top star in the business, you competed for Vince. At that time, WCW was a struggling company just trying to find an audience. It wasn't until around late 1994 that the folks at Turner decided to put up a fight with McMahon.

Then in 1992, the WWF started to hit rock bottom.

Vince was accused of distributing steroids to his stars. It was a major black eye for the world of sports entertainment. All of a sudden, guys like Davey Boy Smith and Ultimate Warrior were fired after testing positive. Former WWF Champion Bruno Sammartino came out and bashed McMahon during an episode of Larry King Live. While Vince was occupied with his legal problems, the company tried to move away from pushing the older stars and started making younger, more athletically gifted stars such as Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) and 1-2-3 Kid (Sean Waltman). Early attempts at this new direction were a failure; business went way down.

Even though McMahon was in a major legal battle and attendance for live events went down the tubes, the WWF was still the number one promotion in North America. The inception of WWF Monday Night RAW in early 1993 helped the WWF tremendously. TV ratings kept WWF afloat until their competition finally got smart.

Around 1994, Eric Bischoff decided it was time for WCW to become a major player in sports entertainment. He lured away former WWF mainstays Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Brutus Beefcake, Earthquake and others. Even though these stars were made elsewhere, it was a smart move because they had name value and could draw fans.

It was effective; WCW started to get on equal footing with WWF.

Business for WWF continued to be sluggish for most of 1995. The problem was, Vince still presented his product as guys who lived in a cartoon world. People no longer wanted to see the Doinks of the world. They were looking for something different, and that's what companies such as WCW and ECW gave them. Vince was stuck in 1985 and in an era of the internet and things rapidly changing all of the time, it didn't help him.

It also didn't help that he basically let stars such as Lex Luger, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall go to WCW. True, Luger demonstrated bad business practices when he gave no notice to Vince and jumped ship in one day, but WWF should have been prepared for that and should have gotten an contract extension way before his contract ran out. What was WWF's loss became WCW's gain and when Bischoff introduced WCW Monday Nitro on TNT in 1995, they went neck and neck for the rest of the year.

Vince claimed that it wasn't fair that Bischoff went head to head with him on Monday nights, and said Ted Turner was trying to monopolize the wrestling business. Everything had come full circle for Vince McMahon. The same tactics he had used on guys like Verne Gagne and Stu Hart were coming back to haunt him. But this time, his competition had more money than he did, and there was nothing he could do. He had to be more innovative with storylines and try to make new stars marketable, or Bischoff and WCW would knock him out for good.

By 1996, the NWO angle along with the exciting new young wrestlers like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho had made WCW an amazing television product, and surged ahead of WWF as the number one promotion in North America. Vince claimed he could not match checkbooks with Turner, and that "Billionaire Ted" stole his talent away from his promotion. There were worries within the industry about how much McMahon could withstand from this new WCW onslaught. Rumors swirled around that the World Wrestling Federation were having financial problems.

Vince then did one of the smartest things he ever attempted. He worked this to his advantage.

He backed out of his lengthy contract with Bret Hart, citing "financial peril". This led to Bret signing a deal with WCW. People in the industry noted this as one of the nails in the coffin for Vince's company and that Turner had come out on top the victor. Bret would have his final WWF match at Survivor Series 1997 in Montreal against heated rival Shawn Michaels. Bret thought that the finish would be a disqualification and that he would hand McMahon the World Championship in a farewell speech the next night on RAW in Ottawa, Ontario. That's what he thought.

During the match, Michaels put Hart in the sharpshooter. McMahon, who was at ringside throughout the contest, immediately ordered referee Earl Hebner to ring the bell. Hart was stunned that his boss and friend McMahon would do such a thing, but in Vince's mind, he thought Bret would have went to WCW with the WWF Title belt and do what Madusa had done two years earlier with the WWF Women's Championship, or a close facsimile of that (During a live edition of Nitro in 1995, Madusa threw the WWF Women's Title in the trash).

What Vince thought was a necessary action to protect his business suddenly turned him from fan-friendly ring announcer to the most hated heel in the wrestling business. Vince McMahon was now the man wrestling fans loved to hate.

A few months later, he started a feud with Steve Austin that would change the face of his company. Gone were the cartoon characters and silly storylines that were catered to children; in were scantily clad women and wrestlers who weren't afraid to flip the fans or each other off. McMahon cleverly coined this new era of his company "WWF Attitude".

During this time, he created new stars such as The Rock, Triple H, Mankind, Chyna, and The New Age Outlaws. At this point, WCW was having major problems backstage and that eventually took its toll. The NWO angle had run its course, and rather than push younger stars, the company went with Hogan, Savage, Nash, and Roddy Piper. WCW created one big star during this time in Bill Goldberg, but he too was a victim of the vicious political game that was being played down in Atlanta.

Vince was now back on top and raking in millions and millions of dollars. He was revolutionizing the industry again like he did back in 1984. All of those rumors about financial peril were put to sleep. He had become "Billionaire Vince." His dream of controlling the entire industry finally came to fruition in the Spring of 2001 when both ECW and WCW went out of business. McMahon decided to buy his hated rival WCW for the discounted price of $2 million, which was quite a shock since the company was making over $300 million annually back in 1997 and 1998. Without any major promotions standing in his way, Vince McMahon is now the industry.

So, whether you prefer glitz with your match, or you like the old simple method of two guys getting in the ring and having a Thesz-style classic, one thing you have to agree with is that Vince McMahon changed the wrestling business. Now, if it's for the better or the worse is solely based on your opinion. Enjoy mulling that one over.

by Jake Hamar ..


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