In the current climate of the pro-wrestling business, multi-millionaire and CEO of the sprawling company that is World Wrestling Entertainment Vincent McMahon Jnr has done something that eludes even the most driven and ruthless men in similar positions in other industries. Without exception in the USA, Mr McMahon has eliminated his competition in the sports-entertainment arena and now sits in a position of dominance as the most powerful man in the world of professional wrestling. To the outsider and the uninitiated, this may not seem any great achievement, but that is to ignore the fact that the pro-wrestling industry is a global phenomenon generating billions in profits and feeding into other arguably more mainstream sectors of the entertainment industry. All the more incredible when it is considered that when he took on the company in the late 1970s it was a minor regional promotion that seldom ventured out of the area of New York state.
WWWF - the Birth of the Promotion
Owned and operated by promoter Vince McMahon Snr (father, obviously of the aforementioned Mr McMahon Jnr), the 'World Wide Wrestling Federation' was one of many small but locally popular and dominant promotions often referred to as territories that had been the basis of pro-wrestling in the US for the largest part of the 20th Century. Fiercely traditional, the territories were run according to a set of archaic and unspoken rules that more resembled an archaic gentleman's agreement than a code by which to conduct a modern business.
The cardinal rule however, was that a promoter confined his activities to the traditional boundaries of his territory and never promoted a show in a rival territory. A promoter could lure away the top stars from another territory if he could stump up the cash or offer another incentive, but another man's territory was sacred.
For his own part, Vince Snr kept to his territory and the hallowed ground of New York City's Madison Square Garden arena. He invested in larger-than-life characters and the old wrestling tradition of good guy champion versus bad guy challenger with names such as Ivan Putski, Stan Stasiak and the Iron Shiek.
WWF - The 1980s, Rock 'n' Wrestling and the Dawn of Hulkamania
At the start of the 1980s, when the US was basking in the glow of MTV and worshipping at the cult of celebrity, pro-wrestling was ailing, dominated by an old-school of influential promoters who hailed back to a long gone age of smokey halls and small-time shows.
It was into this arena that Vince McMahon Jnr stepped when he purchased the WWWF from his ageing father. The younger McMahon, like his father before him, had grown up surrounded by the business; but unlike his father he wanted to look to the future rather than the past.
Vince Jnr began by dropping the second 'W' to create the snappier World Wrestling Federation. He injected new life into the tired pro-wrestling formula in the shape of younger stars toppling the established names, extravagant and often (in retrospect) ridiculous character gimmicks, large and glamorous supercards (heavily promoted one-off shows) with big name stars such as Cyndi Lauper (hence the Rock 'n' Wrestling gimmick), Little Richard, and many others. He also placed his promotion on the shoulders of one Terry Bolera, better known as Hulk Hogan and Hulkamania was born.
But perhaps the most bold move Vince made was to violate the sacred rule of territories. Fully aware of the fact that the promotion could never achieve the heights for which he aimed without a national profile, McMahon forged ahead with tours that trampled across every territory in the land in conjunction with programming on national networks and in the process achieved two things. Firstly he brought the WWF to the attention of the nation and enthralled a new generation of young fans; secondly he made many enemies in the regional promotions. Legend has it that one irate promoter offered to pay the late Bruiser Brody to go to the inaugural Wrestlemania supercard and attack McMahon in retribution for his aggressive tactics and disregard for tradition, Brody was smart enough to walk away from the offer.
Bad Business and Bad Blood
The WWF rode the success of the 1980s and made little effort to change the formula that had won success until in the early 1990s the audience reacted to a stale product with apathy and desertion. Many objected to tasteless angles such as cashing in on the Gulf Conflict by casting Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior as the Allies and Sgt Slaughter and The Iron Shiek as the Iraqis in a tag team match.
Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that Vince believed in the gimmickry that had won through in the 1980s and inherited from his father the belief that big men drew big money. As a result many oversized and undertalented wrestlers were employed to the detriment of the product. It also led to scandal and the courts as McMahon faced charges for encouraging his employees to take illegal anabolic steroids. In the end McMahon made a lucky escape from prosecution, but the image of the WWF as wholesome family entertainment was irreparably tainted as a result.
This added to the reluctance of the promotion to push to the forefront smaller and more dynamic stars saw the promotion stagger and nearly fall. A change in attitude was well overdue.
Struggling to keep its audience, the WWF was finally forced to look to smaller talent such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hitman Hart in the latter part of the 1990s. But a large part of the resurgence it enjoyed in this period was due to the fact that an association was struck up with the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling). The small time Philadelphia promotion made a name by doing what no one else would and pushing a card of violence and sex above all else. The WWF gave the promotion's stars exposure on its own shows, but in the end highjacked the image as the new WWF Attitude.
The promotion moved to more adult-oriented plotlines and spawned stars such as D-Generation X, Stone Cold Steve Austin and later The Rock. Some more established names, in particular Bret Hart, were not happy.
Hart was world champion and a figurehead at the time and enjoyed a certain degree of control over his matches. Soon he made it clear that he wanted to leave and the rival WCW promotion was eager to snap him up. McMahon was terrified that Hart would leave in a hurry and appear of WCW programming with the WWF belt which would spell disaster for the promotion (even though the exact reverse had happened when he lured away Ric Flair from the WCW years earlier). At the Survivor Series supercard, when Hart faced Michaels for the title, McMahon had the referee ring the bell and hand the title to Michaels contrary to the agreed finish where Hart was to win the match. The incident lives to this day in infamy.
The WWF went head-to-head with WCW and for a long time it looked like the latter would emerge as the stronger as it lured more and more established names from the former with the promise of money from the wallet of billionaire and owner Ted Turner. But in the longterm this was the factor that sowed the seeds of the promotions downfall as wages rocketed and contracts gave wrestlers more and more power over the running of the matches in which they were involved. In the end the WCW went under, crushed by the weight of debt and mismanagement.
Ever the opportunist, Mr McMahon stepped into the breech and the WWF purchased its one time rival for the paltry sum of $1,000,000.
WWE - a Change of Name
With a much expanded roster and unchallenged dominance, the WWF looked set to march on into the future unhindered. But then the verdict was finally reached in a long-running legal battle between the promotion and the World Wildlife Fund over the use of the abbreviation that both parties had relied upon in the past. Mainly due to the fact that the WWF had blatantly ignored previous rulings on this matter, the courts found in favour of the charity and the promotion was forced to abandon the name it had carried in one form or another for over 30 years.
Renaming his company World Wrestling Entertainment, Vince McMahon sought to make the most of the situation and forge forward with renewed vigour. But with major name Steve Austin leaving, a bloated roster of underutilised talent and accusations that the product is becoming old hat, now may be the time that tests Mr McMahon the most...