Pro-Wrestling Interview Page
Last updated 6 December 2010
Vince McMahon lay motionless in the middle of the wrestling ring at Bridgeport's Arena at Harbor Yard.
The World Wrestling Entertainment chairman had been refereeing a match when seven muscled toughs surrounded him and delivered a savage beating for the packed house and about 5.5 million fans watching live June 21 on USA Network's "Monday Night Raw."
His attackers appeared to pound McMahon, 64, with their fists. They stomped on him. One hoisted McMahon over his shoulders and tossed him onto the mat. Another launched himself from the ropes onto McMahon's prone body. The wrestling impresario was finally hauled away on a stretcher.
If any other world-famous billionaire CEO whose wife was running for the U.S. Senate had suffered such an assault, it would have been all over the news.
Welcome to the soap-opera world of Stamford-based WWE, in which the company's chairman has pulled the strings behind the scenes for decades, while hamming it up in the ring as a Machiavellian, ruthless boss fans have loved and loathed.
"There's an intentional mix of `OK, who's the real guy?' " McMahon told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers in an exclusive interview a few days before the Harbor Yard event.
So who is the real Vince McMahon? Journalists, prosecutors and congressmen have been asking that question for years. Now, with wife Linda's self-financed Republican bid for the U.S. Senate, add Connecticut voters to the list of the curious.
"Vince is a very complex individual," said Mike Mooneyham, a South Carolina-based journalist who has been covering professional wrestling for 45 years. "He's sort of an enigma."
McMahon grew up in North Carolina -- in an 8-foot-wide trailer -- with his mother.
"It was way, way beyond poor," McMahon said quietly, his trademark voice like gravel over red dirt. "An environment in which you would not want to rear children . . . various stepfathers and situations."
McMahon became interested in professional wrestling after visiting his father, a promoter in the Northeast. He joined the company in 1972 and, having successfully syndicated matches on 30 television stations, bought the business in 1982 and began to pursue a larger audience.
It hasn't been easy. The choreographed Bridgeport beatdown is not the only time McMahon's shoulders have been on the canvas over the years. But in the business world and in the courtroom, as well as in the stage-managed spectacle of the ring, he has always bounced up, stronger than ever.
Mooneyham said McMahon is a true rags-to-riches story and "the most influential power broker in the history of the wrestling business. . . . He virtually changed the landscape of the entire industry, taking it in a whole new, different direction.
"Pre-Vince it had always been this shadowy world, the secret society that everyone took these oaths to protect . . . He took the business Hollywood."
The company went public in 1999 and WWE's matches are viewed in more than 145 countries, in 30 languages.
McMahon said he long ago admitted that nothing he does is in moderation. That includes how he describes WWE.
"I like to say that WWE is America's greatest export . . . It's big-time Western culture," McMahon said. "I think so many people just can, from an elitist standpoint, say `I don't watch that.' (But) when you've got 16 million people in the United States alone that watch WWE programming -- roughly four times the entire population of the state of Connecticut -- somebody likes this and they watch it every single week."
McMahon refers to himself as an "obviously somewhat controversial" figure but claims it is because he takes "the underdog's point of view many, many times." He has expressed public disdain for government officials and the media.
In 2007, when he testified before Congressional staffers regarding the use of steroids and other illegal drugs in professional wrestling, McMahon was quick to dispense with the niceties.
"Do we have to go through this rigmarole?" he asked. "I'm insulted, quite frankly, sitting in front of you today . . . answering these ridiculous questions."
During a 2001 interview with sportscaster Bob Costas, McMahon at times appeared ready to throttle the host.
"I could accuse the media of any number of things," he told Hearst. "How much time do we have?"
Dave Meltzer, another long-time wrestling writer, said McMahon is "obsessively determined to always prove his enemies wrong. I think he needs enemies . . . He's a guy who is very protective of his business and will do anything to protect the business."
McMahon relishes the bad-boy rep.
"My reputation's blown to hell because I'm not strangling anybody right now," McMahon joked during the Hearst interview. "I'm an independent thinker, which sometimes goes against the norm. I'm also a good guy, a caring person, honest . . . I guess you could say a lot of things about me. When you don't know me and you only know of the reputation you could think anything. That guy has two heads, he has a pointed tail."
The latter image of McMahon is being communicated more and more by his wife's political adversaries.
'I'M GOING TO VOTE FOR HER'
Vince McMahon has been mostly absent on the campaign trail, other than being mentioned in an ad as his wife's "high school sweetheart" and joining her on stage when she accepted the Republican nomination at the party's May convention in Hartford.
"I'll say two things about politics . . . and that's it," McMahon said. "Very proud of my wife (and) I'm going to vote for her."
But Vince McMahon cannot escape the race. Linda McMahon is running on her business acumen, and her critics, Democrat and Republican, are using the opportunity to inform or remind voters about the scandals WWE has faced regarding its programming and treatment of talent.
This month, a group named Mothers Against McMahon began circulating clips of WWE matches from 2001 through 2003 -- part of the company's so-called "attitude era" -- portraying "humiliating, degrading and incredibly violent" treatment of women.
Vince McMahon is featured bellowing at performer Trish Stratus to get on her hands and knees like a dog, bark and disrobe.
"Everybody hates an arrogant boss -- not that I'm like that in real life. A lot of people could relate to that. Was that a little bit over the top from time to time? No question," McMahon says of his earlier on-screen antics. "I think a lot of our environment in the past is held up as who we are today, which of course is just not the case. It's just politically expedient to do so."
Linda McMahon, in a separate interview, called her husband "the creative genius of the company" and said that she, in contrast, focused on "developing the business of the business."
"He clearly is a showman and understands that particular world," Linda McMahon said. "He really understands the man on the street."
For all of her husband's bluster, she said. "he is shy, believe it or not, in crowds . . . He's a very private person. He's not very loquacious. He's very thoughtful."
The two met when he was 16 and she was 13. They married four years later and will soon celebrate their 44th anniversary.
"We have literally grown up together," she said.
Linda said Vince is "very family oriented. He's a marshmallow with all of his grandchildren. He's `Pop.' "
And yet Vince McMahon has a reputation as a ladies man, both as the character he plays and in real life.
His character's biography on the WWE Raw website explains that he ("Mr. McMahon") is perceived by fans as "a womanizer, a self-professed `genetic jackhammer' who has made his way around the Divas' (WWE female performers') locker room on more than one occasion."
The real Vince told Playboy in 2001 that he admitted numerous affairs to his wife but said he had been "faithful for about six years."
"One day she asked me point-blank, `Are you having an affair with so-and-so?' and I've never lied to her," McMahon told Playboy. "It went on, more names. I said `Yes, yes and yes' . . . It's not something I'm proud of. I just didn't realize the impact of messing with other people's lives. Notwithstanding the impact on my wife, I'm talking about the havoc you create in other lives from wanting to have a good time."
Asked to comment on her husband's flings, Linda said it is a private matter.
So where does "Mr. McMahon" stop and Vince McMahon, the real CEO, begin? Sometimes, they could not be more different. Sometimes, the lines blur.
Here is Vince, talking about the stagecraft of wrestling: "Like I say, `it ain't ballet.' Sometimes I'll just lightly touch you with one of my punches and other times it will be more than a light touch and I won't mean it." His eyes light up and the boyish grin follows, full of mischief: Was that punch on purpose, or not? "And I'll then get a receipt back, as we call it sometimes." The grin gets a little more knowing. I'm in the club, it says, the club of demigods who trade body blows before a few million people, for laughs and for a hell of a lot of money. The boy-man, playing with action figures only he controls.
Now here's "Mr. McMahon," strutting into the Harbor Yard ring with an exaggerated, clownish hustle, arms milling, feet slapping the concrete, that same grin widening as the crowd sees him and gets into it, his eyes ablaze with what drives both the character and the man -- addiction to the spotlight, a drug like no other.
THE SWITCH TO PG
McMahon began the Hearst interview with a celebrity-filled promotional film about WWE that flashed the giant letters PG (the film rating for Parental Guidance) at the beginning and end.
"You can pick apart every little thing we've ever done, sure," McMahon said when asked if he regrets any programming choices, such as when his son-in-law, wrestler Triple H, in 2002 climbed into a coffin and simulated sex with a corpse.
"When you look at the totality of the number of minutes we've produced and look at the number of those that may be incendiary or what have you, it's a fraction. So for me to go back and relate to one particular incident . . . are there moments of which I might have some degree of regret? Yeah, there are. But like any good producer, any good television writer or film writer, you write the best film you can."
Meltzer said, "There's this big axiom that because of (Linda's) campaign they've gone PG. They went before she ran. That was a marketing gimmick to increase sponsorship." Meltzer added, "Will Vince in a heartbeat change when he thinks this isn't working? Absolutely. He's reinvented himself many, many times."
McMahon said everything his company does, including the move to PG, is "for the right business reasons."
"If you're reaching a larger audience, why would we go back to trying to reach a smaller audience? Business-wise it doesn't make any sense."
Instead of "reinvented," McMahon prefers the word "evolved" -- a term both he and his wife use profusely when confronted with questions about offensive programming and other WWE controversies, such as abuse of steroids and other illegal drugs within the industry and a high mortality rate among professional wrestlers.
WWE matches have not been regulated -- like, for instance, boxing -- since the McMahon's declared the events are not sport but entertainment.
And the company bristles at any suggestion otherwise.
When a New York state Senate Republican in 2000 proposed mandatory drug testing for professional wrestlers as part of state licensing, McMahon told the Associated Press "we are performers. We are showmen. He'd be drug testing everyone on Broadway. He'd be drug testing the circus."
And according to a December, 2007 report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when that state's boxing commission sought to lift an exemption on professional wrestling, McMahon's long-time attorney, Jerry McDevitt, warned, "If those regulations are applied to us, we won't do Georgia."
McMahon snickered at the idea that either the federal or state governments oversee wrestling, arguing the bureaucracy and additional taxes would be a huge burden.
"There's nothing that any state could require that we don't do," he said. "We care about our performers and fans a whole lot more than any state or federal government."
'WELLNESS' POLICY IN 2006
Since 2006, the company has had a wellness policy, posted on its corporate website, which provides for annual physicals, cardiovascular testing, concussion management and random drug testing at least four times a year for illegal drugs such as steroids.
"You evolve in terms of how you want to run your company, you evolve in terms of how you want to present it and you evolve in terms of the way you treat your performers," McMahon said. "Even if we didn't personally care -- I'm very close to a lot of these guys personally -- it's good business. I like to say the only raw material that our company really has are our talent. The better shape they're in the more you can invest in them. The healthier they are the greater longevity and all of that so it's just good business."
The company also has a standing offer to assist current and former talent with addiction issues.
"We have a number of guys, thank God, who have taken us up on that," McMahon said.
McMahon appeared less sympathetic in his 2007 Congressional testimony. Asked what led him to extend the drug treatment offer, McMahon said: "Two words: public relations. That's it. I do not feel any sense of responsibility for anyone whatever their age is who . . . has bad habits and overdoses for drugs."
Mooneyham said while the policy was enacted far too late for some, "I think the program is great. It's a very good gesture."
But WWE still does not provide health insurance to its wrestlers, who are classified as independent contractors.
"Anyone who makes the kind of money that they make can easily afford their own healthcare," McMahon said. "Most independent contractors have their own healthcare."
A company spokesman said that on average, wrestlers today earn about $550,000 per year, a number considerably higher than in years past.
Although the six-figure salaries sound impressive to the public, wrestlers, who perform on average four days a week all over the country, are responsible for more than just health coverage.
WWE pays for airfare from their hometowns to their first live event and airfare home from their last live event. But talent is responsible for other travel expenses, as well as costs for accommodations, food and fitness.
"I have always advocated that these guys need an appropriate amount of time off," Mooneyham said. "Wrestling is 365 days, 52 weeks. There's no offseason . . . To stay employed these guys have to work through injuries or perhaps lose their spot in the lineup."
Meltzer said historically WWE has been reactive, not proactive, when it comes to taking care of performers, adding that it is difficult for the wrestlers themselves to push for improvements.
"Half of them don't believe they deserve it and think it's Vince McMahon's magic wand that made them," he said. "The ones who are confident realize the rest will fold in any pressure situation, so they don't bother. He has tremendous control over his product."
'STEROID USE IS PERVASIVE'
In the early 1990s the federal government charged McMahon with conspiring to distribute steroids, but a judge dismissed two of the charges and McMahon was acquitted by a federal jury in 1994 after 16 hours of deliberation. Eleven wrestlers, including superstar Hulk Hogan, were called by the prosecution to testify, but only one accused McMahon of influencing his decision.
"Just like in wrestling, in the end the good guys always win," McMahon, who did not testify, told reporters outside of the New York courthouse.
WWE in 1991 announced that it was extending testing for cocaine and other substances to steroids. But in 1996 the McMahons suspended their drug testing program -- a policy decision that remained in place until shortly after popular WWE wrestler Eddie Guerrero was found dead in 2005 just before he was to perform. The death was due to heart disease, but medical officials cited past steroid use and narcotic pain medication as possible contributing factors.
In 2006 the company established the wellness program and, according to federal testimony, in the company's initial tests, in which they warned wrestlers ahead of time yet assured them there would be no penalty for positive tests, about 40 percent tested positive for steroids or other drugs.
As for recent testing, McMahon said, "Without telling you too much about it because we have some confidentiality . . . I think we're ranking pretty good. We just don't have any problems at all. None."
Asked about the reasons for the 10-year gap in drug testing, McMahon said WWE was cutting costs in the face of a brutal battle with cable rival Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling.
"I was really concerned about going out of business competing with Turner and we came close to it," McMahon said. "So better we be in business and have our performers being able to have a livelihood than being out of business."
Mooneyham and Meltzer both said it is true WWE was struggling for a few years, but not a decade. In fact McMahon bought Turner's WCW brand in early 2001.
"By mid-1998 they were number one. And by 1999 they were so far ahead of competition it wasn't even close. And by 2001 there was no competition," Meltzer said.
In June 2007, WWE wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, son and himself. Responding to reports that Benoit might have been using steroids and had 10 times the normal testosterone level in his system when he died, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., then-chairman of the Commission on Oversight and Government reform, began probing drug use in professional wrestling.
Later that year committee staff conducted closed door, sometimes-contentious interviews with the McMahons and others involved in WWE and competitor Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.
In January, 2009 -- eight months prior to Linda announcing her candidacy -- Waxman, who was wrapping up his tenure as chairman, sent a letter to the White House Office of National Drug Control policy urging an examination of steroid use in professional wrestling.
The evidence obtained by the committee indicated "steroid use is pervasive in professional wrestling and that the organizations involved have not taken adequate steps to address this problem," Waxman wrote.
"I haven't read it," McMahon said of Waxman's letter. "I didn't like those people . . . smarmy."
He believes Waxman had already made up his mind the McMahons and WWE were guilty of something before they provided testimony or evidence.
"Then when there was no story he just pushed it off his desk into some other place," McMahon said. A Hearst investigation earlier this year found that Waxman's request wound up in bureaucratic limbo and was never acted upon.
McMahon said the Benoit tragedy was "a tremendous shock" and "the biggest black eye obviously we've ever had and difficult to overcome both psychologically as well as from a business point." But he said it is unfair to use it to criticize WWE.
"Who knows what clicks in somebody's head one day?" McMahon said, using the term "going postal" to describe what happened. "People look for excuses as to why someone would do that. I don't think you can point to his profession as to why he did that. . . . nothing ever happened like this since the advent of this business, and it goes back to Abraham Lincoln."
But Mooneyham said professional wrestlers lead grueling lifestyles and it was known that Benoit was "playing around with lethal cocktails" of steroids and painkillers. "And this is what happened," he said.
"I never ever would want to hold them responsible for murders in any way, shape or form," Meltzer said of the McMahons and WWE. "But to say the business was not in any way a part of it, I can't buy that. What screwed up (Benoit's) wiring was damages from trying to be the best in the business he was in."
A SKEPTIC ON STEROIDS
Despite his run-ins with the federal government over steroids, McMahon is stubbornly skeptical regarding steroids' impact on health.
The federal Food and Drug Administration classified steroids as a controlled substance in 1991.
"There's not much information that you guys know about steroids other than the media is writing hysterically about them, and maybe they should," McMahon said. "I don't know there's really been any great research you can point to that definitely says this is deleterious to your health or in some cases it helps you or whatever . . . So I don't think there's enough empirical research done, certainly not by the government."
Linda McMahon made similar comments in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, but her campaign spokesman soon afterward clarified she "believes steroid use can have long-term negative physical and psychiatric impact on the body, and those negative impacts obviously are exacerbated with abuse."
But Vince McMahon said he is not even sure what "abuse" means.
"What is abuse of steroids? I don't know what that is. No one can tell you what that is," he said. "You can abuse sugar or any other substance or any other drug. There's not enough known about these damn things."
Dr. Gary Wadler of New York, an expert on steroid use and fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine, provided testimony in the federal government's unsuccessful prosecution of McMahon in the early 1990s. Wadler said McMahon's statements to Hearst "absolutely fly in the face of the facts as I know them, and I think I know the subject pretty well.
"Would we like to see more research done? Sure. I've always been in favor of getting as much facts as you can, but you can't ignore the facts that already exist."
Wadler authored the textbook, Drugs and the Athlete, and is closely involved with the work of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
"It is very, very clear what the adverse effects of these drugs are and how they are being abused," Wadler said. "Statements of that sort -- they just don't comport with what's really going on."
McMahon, who has admitted to using steroids before they were illegal, acknowledged that although he performs for WWE the drug policy does not apply to him.
When Waxman's staff asked McMahon if he had used steroids since 1996 he declined to answer.
"I'm in a no-win situation here," McMahon told Hearst, arguing whatever he does he will never be able to convince skeptics WWE's testing policies are not a farce. "If I take this test, then the test is a sham. If I don't take it then I'm guilty of something . . . I don't do illegal drugs."
Dawn Marie Damatta, who performed with WWE from 2002 to 2005 and whose profile is still on the company website, said she has used steroids during the course of her wrestling career, which began in the late-1990s.
"I chose to take that shortcut," Damatta said. "Did Vince tell me to take that shortcut? No. Did WWE? No. Why did I do it? Because I thought that's what I needed to do in order to keep up . . . There was no testing policy."
She said it is clear just from looking at the physiques of today's WWE talent that steroid use is not as prevalent as it used to be. And she believes the drug-testing policy is also reducing the abuse of drugs such as painkillers and saving lives.
Damatta said she likes and respects Linda and Vince but believes they could do more to assist former talent.
"Wrestlers are taken as children, thrown into this industry and then we're dumped back out as adults. There's no learning in the world. We're on the road, traveling, hustling, getting beat up," Damatta said. "Where do I go? What do I put on a resume?"
McMahon will not face those same challenges when he retires -- if he retires.
"As time goes on obviously I'm going to be in retreat mode," McMahon said.
He said that, particularly now that WWE is a public company, there is more and more shared responsibility.
"People think I'm involved in every single aspect of everything that we do and dominating this or that," McMahon said. "It's not Vince's company. It can't be Vince's company. It's a public company."
During the interview McMahon said he was preparing to put an end to his performances in the ring.
"We need to move on, you know?" McMahon said. "It's important that we develop new characters and my character seems to eat up a lot of time on the show. We need to have these fresh young faces."
McMahon has not appeared on "Raw" since he was carried out of Harbor Yard on a stretcher last month.
"It was Vince's intention to write himself out, and there are no plans for him to return to the ring," WWE spokesman Robert Zimmerman said by e-mail.
"But since it's WWE, you never know."