Words

Vince McMahon: Pro Wrestling's Master of Storytelling

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

Vincent Kennedy McMahon, Jr., CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has been called many things during his tenure as chairman of the wrestling organization. Mastermind, psychopath, megalomaniac, genius, dictator. He has been accused of sexual assault, of promoting racism, of using and distributing steroids, of ‘pimping out’ his family, and of fostering unsafe practices for his wrestlers. It is hard to pin down Vince McMahon as a person because his actual character is so wrapped up in his WWE persona. As the grandson of Jess McMahon, celebrated boxing promoter and matchmaker, and son to Vincent McMahon Sr., who brought wrestling to homes with his tremendously successful televised events, Vincent McMahon Jr. continued in the tradition of his forbearers by taking the fighting entertainment world to the next level. His father and grandfather would no doubt be flabbergasted by the current version of the McMahon family fighting promotion, astounded by the theatrics, popularity, and financial success of the WWE. While they might not approve of Vince Junior’s iteration of the family business, they would still have to admire their progeny for the zeal with which he approaches every WWE event. Vince Junior may be a lot of things, but he is, at the root of everything, an expert storyteller, using all the tools in his arsenal to create a version of the WWE that is not just a sport or entertainment, but a popular culture phenomenon.    

The progeny of Vincent James McMahon and his first wife, Vicky Askew, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, Jr., was born August 24, 1945. His parents divorced the following year and young Vince was raised as Vinnie Lupton. His mother drifted from marriage to marriage, so Vinnie did not have a relationship with biological father, Vince Senior, until 1957, when Vince Senior began to regularly visit the children from his first marriage with his new wife, Juanita.

The relationship between father and son was strained, as the relationship between many men and their 14-year-old sons can be. Vince Senior sent his son to military school, where Vince Junior later claimed he was the first student ever court-marshalled at a military school. Vince Junior had one passion, and that was for wrestling, despite his father’s insistence that his son pursue a career in a more white collar industry. In fact, Vince Junior competed as part of the Fishburne Military School wrestling team. Upon graduation, he went on to college and married his high school sweet heart, Linda. Linda had a sobering effect on Vince and showed him the meaning of family. Vince told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1999: “I had no idea what a family was until I met Linda and saw how they lived. I wanted some of that stability and love.”

According to Angie Peterson Kaelberer’s book, “The McMahons,” Vince worked in sales in Washington D.C., but when his father called him in 1969 to ask him to act as ring announcer, Vince jumped on the opportunity. Junior was intent on continuing the family business, an insistence that became more of a creed or motto in his life: family was first. The McMahon family was, for Vince, a dynasty, an American projection of royalty built not on bloodline, but on bloodthirst. Vince Senior may have wanted more for his son, but wrestling was the only Vince Junior ever wanted to do. In 1982, Vince Senior planned his retirement, providing his son, Vince Junior, with the majority of his stock, but also keeping his business partners, Arnold Skaaland, Robert Marella, and Phil Zacko, with percentages in the business. But Vince Junior bought them out, becoming the CEO of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Senior gave the business to his son, but according to the younger McMahon, his father would not have improved of Vince Junior’s iteration of the WWF. He told Sports Illustrated in 1991:

"Had my father known what I was going to do, he never would have sold his stock to me. In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed. There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S. and if I hadn't bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling. I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords."

Not a lord, but a king or even a dictator, Vince McMahon Jr. was ready to take on all other wrestling organizations. The struggle between the remaining organizations like the AWA, the NWA, and the JCP, continued, but Vince had total domination in mind. His father had used the new television culture to expand his business, and Vince did the same by turning to another television innovation, Pay-Per-View, to reinvigorate wrestling fandom to a level that would ensure the success of his kingdom in years to come.

Pay-Per-View began in fits and starts, first in 1951 using telephone lines, although satellite technology quickly outpaced PPV. In 1975, HBO transmitted the infamous Muhammad Ali v. Joe Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” fight via PPV, and thus established the technology as the preeminent method of viewing live sporting events worldwide. On March 31, 1985, Vince McMahon promoted the WWF’s Wrestlemania I, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. His grandfather, Jess, also promoted for Madison Square Garden, but he worked for the third version of the complex, while Wrestlemania I took place at the fourth and current version. Always seeking to tie his wrestling events to other forms of celebrity, Vince McMahon managed to wrangle some of the biggest names in sports and music to attend. Muhammad Ali refereed, Liberace acted as timekeeper and danced with the Rockettes, and Mr. T headlined the event with Hulk Hogan. Wrestlemania I dwarfed previous wrestling events, generating over $10 million dollars in PPV subscriptions alone. Hilariously, the domain www.payperview.com is owned by Vince McMahon Jr. and redirects to the WWE home page.

Vince McMahon Jr. did not just expand the WWF viewership, he changed the narrative of wrestling to create a larger story-world that extends beyond the ring. Stories crossed over between wrestling events and television networks; MTV covered Wrestlemania I and of course, aired Cyndi Lauper’s video, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” where her supposed feud with Capt. Lou Albano originated. Where once professional wrestling operated as a theatrical sporting event, with relatively clear character functions of good (faces) and evil (heels), Vince Junior’s wrestling world became darker, populated with anti-heroes—a hard-boiled soap opera where the narrative is not constrained by the action of wrestling itself. In 1997, he announced that the WWE would no longer operate as a good versus evil saga, and would instead be infused with ‘attitude,’ taking on more adult themes and operating, in way, like a noir. Gone were the standard dichotomies and in their place, characters functioned in shades of grey, as heroes and anti-heroes. And in this new ‘Attitude-Era,’ the WWE storyworld became wider and much more interesting. 

What matters in the current iteration of professional wrestling, in Vince McMahon Jr.’s storyworld, is how the narrative progresses, rather than the outcome of a particular match. Outcomes matter only in how they move along the trajectory of the WWE story. To return to French thinker Roland Barthes, this time in his analytical text, Structural Analysis, “meaning does not lie ‘at the end’ of the narrative, but straddles it.” Therefore, while the wrestling match drives toward a certain ending syntagmatically, the meaning, and the pleasure of the story, occurs in the telling. Barthes, like many of his cohort in the field of Structuralism, Semiotics, and Narratology, were fascinated by the idea of creating a science of literary analysis, a teleology of narrative that would place literary studies in the realm of the scientific rather than the humanities. But this was also a difficult concept, especially for someone like Barthes, who did not like the idea of reducing a narrative down to a single linguistic code or finding one single meaning. Instead, Barthes wanted to discover the processes in which meaning is made. Wrestling creates meaning through action, but while the wrestlers (characters) may know the overall arc of the story, and may even, to a certain extent, have a plan for how they intend to execute a particular move, the actuation of the narrative occurs in the performance.

In a 2008 interview with Larry King, WWE superstars Triple H (McMahon’s son-in-law) and Chris Jericho revealed that their bouts were not scripted, but rather improvised. Jericho explained,

“It’s like being a jazz musician or an improve comedian. You have a certain mindset of what you want to do. But you go out there and follow each other, like a good jazz band will do…We follow each other and listen to what the crowd says and just kind of go with it.”

Vince Senior’s wrestling world also contained a scripted plan and anticipated outcome to a particular match, but the sequence of events took place during the match itself. In Vince Junior’s realm, the story contains does not just the match-up between wrestlers, it also includes interactions between fighters outside of the ring, feuds that continue across events, stories generated by product sales or audience demands, and the 24/7 continual narrative of today’s WWE Network that includes comedy sketch shows, food and travel shows featuring WWE stars, and hidden camera shows.

Because of this tremendous level of conspicuous consumption, the WWE storyworld is constructed not just by writers, but by the crowd, ratings, and often, by the relationships between the wrestlers when they metaphorically take of their masks. Vince McMahon Junior, in his early days as CEO of the WWE, operated much more like his father, as the owner, promoter, and businessman-behind-the-scenes. Although Vince Junior was much more in the spotlight, he functioned more like a narrator in the WWE, but not really a character until he introduced one of his most popular characters of all time, ‘Stone-Cold’ Steve Austin.

Steve Austin embodied the American working-class hero. A monster truck driving, beer guzzling, blue-jean wearing hulk of a man, ‘Stone-Cold’ Steve Austin would enter the arena to the sound of glass shattering, perhaps a metaphor for his intended destruction of the white-collar establishment embodied in turn by Vince McMahon, Jr. It was in the Stone-Cold era that Vince McMahon went from a narrator function to the personification of Corporate America in his character of ‘Mr. McMahon.’ In his new role as the evil CEO, Mr. McMahon did something his father and grandfather would never have done: he became part of the story. His children, Shane and Stephanie (married to Triple H), became part of the WWE storyworld. As the WWE website explains,

“Mahon’s been blown up, buried beneath an exploding stage, shaved bald and fingered as Hornswoggle’s illegitimate father. He’s given away millions of his own money, locked lips with Rikishi’s posterior and withstood the pain of being relieved of his day-to-day duties by his own son-in-law, Triple H, and WWE’s Board of Directors. Whether in the boardroom or the ring, this titan of industry is belligerent, cocky and always spoiling for a fight ... and dammit, WWE fans respect him for it.”

If Jess McMahon’s talent was for setting up fights, and Vince Senior’s gift was his foresight for the importance of television in the wrestling game, Vince Junior’s strength is his skill as a storyteller. Under the reign of Vince McMahon Jr., the WWE created some of the most memorable and fascinating characters of all time who are known not only for their athletic performances, but also for their individual storylines. Does the WWE operate as a theater of the absurd? Maybe. But it is an all-encompassing performance that is not defined solely by the outcome of a match or constrained by the arena in which it occurs. Vince McMahon Jr. is, in his own way, a storyteller in the same vein as George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien. His fictional world is not dictated by one particular text or storyline because the narrative world extends beyond the scope of a single tale.

In his book, Fictional Worlds, Thomas Pavel argues for a distinction between the world of fiction and the actual world, contending that in fiction, even if the world is “metaphysically possible,” that does not make it ‘real’ only ‘realistic.’  Fictional worlds, whether mimetic of our own actual world, or a creative, mythical world, are all fictive and must be identified as such. In the WWE, Vince McMahon Jr. plays a fictive version of himself, and his family also remains his family in that fictive world. It is very easy to conflate ‘Mr. McMahon’ with the actual Vince McMahon Jr., especially since he, like Stephen Colbert, rarely breaks character. Part of this is due to the theater of the WWE, which is, in a way, boundless. Vince Junior has, from the very beginning, sought to create a storyworld that transcends matches and programs, character functions and story lines, television channels and the internet and, to be hyperbolic, which seems completely appropriate in the WWE realm, transcends time itself. The McMahon family is fact and fiction, real and fictive, at the same time.

From Jess to Vince Senior to Vince Junior and eventually, to his children, the McMahon family changed the landscape of the fighting in the 20th and 21st centuries, both fictive and real. It is easy to scoff Vince McMahon R. and at professional wrestling, but as this series has shown, his family line changed the way that boxing and wrestling operate in the U.S. Jess McMahon refused to promote fights that benefitted white boxers and created exhilarating matches based on skill rather than race. His son, Vince Senior, saw an opportunity to increase the popularity of wrestling and using his own money, put wrestling on television, creating a demand for televised and local wrestling events. And his son, Vince Junior, changed the narrative of wrestling from a good versus evil morality tale to a broader, more nuanced (yet still hyperbolic) story world that is now a cultural phenomenon. As CM Punk prepares to make his UFC debut, the ‘fictive’ fighter becomes real and the narrative, again, changes. That will make a great story. 

 

Read more about the McMahon legacy:

Vince McMahon Sr. and the Dawn of Television

Jess McMahon: Boxing Promoter and Sire of the WWE

 

Comments