Vince McMahon's Control of Pro Wrestling's History Key to Controlling its PresentBreaking News
tags: Wrestling, entertainment, Vince McMahon
Abraham Josephine Reisman is the author of Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America , published this week.
Professional wrestling buries its history with ease and enthusiasm.
It happens in the ring: An evil character suddenly does one noble act, becomes a good guy, and all past sins are forgiven by the crowd (until the next moral flip). It happens behind the scenes: “Documentaries” produced by World Wrestling Entertainment will wax poetic about a wrestler’s triumphs and never mention his domestic violence charges. There is no equivalent of ESPN Classic for wrestling; most matches held before the 1980s may as well not exist, as far as average viewers are concerned. The industry exists in an eternal present, with only a hazy sense of what came before.
This is all by design.
Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the newly reinstalled executive chairman of WWE and the single most important man in pro wrestling for four decades straight, is one of the more deft manipulators of reality in the history of popular entertainment. There is the standard manipulation of the viewer that comes with the territory; pro wrestling is, after all, only a legitimate sport in the way the Harlem Globetrotters are a legitimate basketball team. But there’s another layer.
Ever since 1983, when McMahon took control of the World Wrestling Federation from his father, he’s manifested Orwell’s dictum about those controlling the present controlling the past. He owns the tape archives of nearly all the companies he defeated during his reign, meaning no one can legally see what came before without his approval.
That makes sense — McMahon has never been nostalgic about the way wrestling was before he conquered it. From the very beginning of his tenure at the helm of WWE (then known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF) in the early 1980s, he sought to destroy or buy all of his competitors. He succeeded: Within 10 years, only one major rival, Ted Turner, remained. Within 20 years, there was no one left to oppose him. McMahon reshaped wrestling in his image. Or so the story goes.
WWE often highlights McMahon’s deft kicking-down of the old system. For a century, pro wrestling had been a broadly lawless world of brutes and thieves. Wrestlers and promoters told the world that wrestling was an honest-to-god sport, but it was regarded by legislators and regulators as a silly enough enterprise that it was beneath their scrutiny. Rarely was there informed legislation protecting wrestlers or preventing fraud. As a result, wrestling developed its own code of ethics, which was only tangentially based on ethics or the law.
To put it bluntly, in a wrestling promotion, the promoter was able to do whatever the hell he wanted, so long as it didn’t piss off the promoter of a different region. Each of the few dozen wrestling “territories” was run as its own little totalitarian fiefdom. If a man had clawed his way to the ownership of a promotion, more often than not, he hadn’t gotten there by playing nice.
The promoter class faced no significant opposition. There has never been a union for wrestlers. They work as independent contractors, not employees, and thus have never had employer-provided health insurance. They were — and are — grossly underpaid compared to athletes in legitimate sports. The closest thing to a democracy that wrestling had was the consortium of promotions that McMahon destroyed, known as the National Wrestling Alliance, but it was an oligarchy of promoters in which wrestlers had no voice. For those wrestlers, there is no job security. There is no pension plan. There is no escape plan.