With each arm hooked around the hips of a woman in a glittery dress, Donald Trump strolled down the entrance ramp on WWE Raw sporting his signature smirk.
The crowd chanted his name. He gave them a peace sign before stepping inside the ring, scooping a microphone off the table and taking his first jab at his onscreen adversary—WWE owner Vince McMahon.
"Your grapefruits are no match for my Trump Towers," Trump said.
This was not Trump's first foray into the strange world of WWE. It was a place he knew well, where he has played host, antagonist and WrestleMania attraction en route to the Hall of Fame.
In fact, the WWE story is not complete without Trump, just as the Trump story is not complete without WWE.
WWE Universe @WWEUniverse
Just a couple of WWE Hall of Famers, @TrishStratuscom & @realDonaldTrump, hanging out backstage! #WWEHOF http://t.co/ASTDhEDeLx2013-4-7 01:54:20
Critics of the Republican presidential nominee have often compared his bombast and antics to what one regularly sees in wrestling. It's an industry that fits him as well as a tailored suit.
His bravado, over-the-top behavior and penchant for the controversial are not only apt for the wrestling stage—they all appear to be pulled straight from the squared-circle bag of tricks.
Spy magazine co-founder Kurt Andersen said of Trump on Recode Media with Peter Kafka, "WWE is, if not the key, a large key to the Donald Trump phenomenon we're experiencing today."
Diving further into that idea, Salon columnist Chauncey DeVega wrote:
His time spent in the world of professional wrestling is invaluable for understanding the path he has cut through the GOP primary field—because the playbook employed by Trump over the past several months bears an uncanny resemblance to the storytelling and character-building stratagem of professional wrestling.
Trump's relationship with the place he has drawn from in his quest for the White House began when WWE was still the World Wrestling Federation during WrestleMania's infancy in 1988.
Host, Attendee, Fan
McMahon's sports-entertainment extravaganza was entering its fourth year of existence. Hulkamania was running wild. Pro wrestling was forcing its way into pop culture in a way it had never before.
Trump wanted in on that action.
The Atlantic City Conventional Hall was a fitting home for the spectacle-rich WrestleMania. The venue, which had hosted Mike Tyson fights before, could cram nearly 20,000 fans inside.
"I just wanted a piece of it," Trump said, as seen on The True Story of WrestleMania. "Everybody in the country wanted this event, and we were able to get it."
And so, the mogul welcomed the circus into his town, signing a deal to have Trump Plaza sponsor WrestleMania IV and his convention hall house it.
In addition to the pay-per-view itself, which saw Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and other spandex-clad gladiators battle over the WWF Championship in a tournament, WrestleMania featured a weekend's worth of events. Wrestlers signed autographs and posed for photos.
This would eventually morph into the fan festival known as WrestleMania Axxess, which remains an annual tradition.
Trump so enjoyed putting on WrestleMania that he agreed to do so again the next year. The first go-round had clearly been a success. He said in The True Story of WrestleMania: "I never sold tickets to anything so easily as I have to this."
Atlantic City welcomed WrestleMania V in 1989 thanks to Trump. This marked the first and only time a city has hosted the event consecutively.
In 1991, Trump popped up at wrestling's answer to the Super Bowl again. At WrestleMania VII in Los Angeles, he and Chuck Norris were famous faces in the crowd. Announcer Gene Okerlund briefly spoke to the pair during the show.
Over a decade later at WrestleMania XX in 2004, Trump was onscreen again, sitting among the Madison Square Garden audience. Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota governor and WWE grappler, interviewed The Donald.
When Ventura crowed, "I think that we may need a wrestler in the White House in 2008," he couldn't have had any idea that the man standing next to him would creep mighty close to that position years later.
On Center Stage
Trump's trademark phrase on his reality show The Apprentice was oddly enough McMahon's favorite phrase when he played WWE's resident evil tyrant: "You're fired!"
The buzz created from both The Apprentice and one of Trump's most well-known rivalries earned him a spot in the ring. Sort of.
In January 2007, WWE looked to incorporate the bad blood between TV host Rosie O'Donnell and Trump. McMahon advertised a match between the two. Instead, two independent wrestlers dressed as O'Donnell and Trump locked horns in a ridiculous affair.
Fans hated it.
They were restless from the opening bell. They booed. They chanted.
The real Trump would show up on Raw that same month sans O'Donnell.
During Raw's Fan Appreciation Night, McMahon tried to turn the evening into a celebration of himself, talking up his accomplishments and showing off a magazine cover that featured the WWE owner. Trump cut in.
This night he played the good guy. Trump chastised McMahon for his selfishness.
And at Trump's command, money rained down on to the fans like confetti in a show of his appreciation for the audience.
The two executives didn't cross paths randomly. This was the early setup for a showdown between them. In the coming weeks, WWE told a story of two men at war, with pride and hair on the line.
Trump and McMahon agreed to each send a proxy into the ring to fight at WrestleMania 23. The price of losing would be a forced haircut, to be shaved bald in front of the crowd.
McMahon chose the tattooed Samoan beast Umaga. Trump selected Bobby Lashley, the perfectly sculpted ECW world champion.
Before Detroit's Ford Field hosted what WWE dubbed the "Battle of the Billionaires," the businessmen met in an in-ring contract signing.
Trump's confidence glowed onscreen.
He strutted to the ring with two female wrestlers at his side. One of them, Maria Kanellis, later appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice, where Trump fired her for using "locker room" talk.
The scene in the squared circle is eerily reminiscent of the political career that came after it. Trump dismissed McMahon's talk of polls and threw out his own stats. He smugly promised victory. He sounded like a politician with the volume turned up.
As contract signings so often do in pro wrestling, this one unraveled into chaos.
Steve Austin appeared and threatened Trump. A scuffle broke out. The Donald shoved McMahon over a table. All in the name of selling PPV buys for WrestleMania.
Backstage before the bout, Trump mistook the creepy red-faced Boogeyman for the help.
Once the match began, Lashley and Umaga provided the majority of the physicality. They slugged it out as Trump and McMahon nervously watched on.
Trump, though, would get in one good shot. He barreled at McMahon and clotheslined him to the mat.
Lashley toppled Umaga in the end, keeping Trump's famous hair intact. McMahon soon found himself held down in a chair in the ring as his enemies sheared him to the skin.
In the aftermath, special guest referee Austin celebrated by chugging beer and knocking Trump on his ass.
The spectacle helped WrestleMania 23 do tremendous business. Even with John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels and Undertaker vs. Batista on the card, many credit Trump's presence.
Lashley told Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated, "He understands success, and everything he did was top-notch. A lot of the success from that WrestleMania was because of him."
WrestleMania 23 garnered the most PPV buys in company history at 1.2 million, per WWE's corporate site. The event also broke records for attendance and ticket sales.
Not surprisingly, Trump is not shy about mentioning any of this. He made sure to point out his part in those numbers at a variety of WWE appearances afterward.
McMahon, long the iron-fisted ruler of WWE in front of the camera, appeared on Raw in June 2009 torn. He looked uncomfortable, unsure of himself and nervous. Something odd was in the works.
He announced that he had sold Raw, and soon Trump's face appeared on the big screen.
The Donald confirmed that he purchased the show. He fired off promises of change. "I'm going to do stuff that's never been done before, never been seen before," he told fans.
This incarnation of Trump was selfless, a man of the people. He wanted to improve the product and announced that he would broadcast the next edition of Raw commercial-free.
Trump never really owned Raw. This kind of storyline power struggle happens all the time. Ric Flair once controlled half of Raw; McMahon once forced out WWF president Jack Tunney.
But when WWE sent out a mock press release to announce Trump's mock ownership, Wall Street took it seriously. As Deadline's Nikki Finke pointed out, the stunt sent WWE's "share price down nearly 7 percent at one point."
The Trump Era didn't last long.
A week later, he showed up to the ring smug and cocky, watching McMahon squirm in front of him. McMahon was desperate to buy the show back. Trump balked at each offer until McMahon doubled the price.
When McMahon bemoaned Trump's business practices, Trump told him, "I can do whatever the hell I want."
Four years later, entry to the celebrity wing of the Hall of Fame was his. Hosting two WrestleManias alone would have earned him that honor, but Trump made an impact on WWE on several occasions, wearing a variety of hats.
During his Hall of Fame induction speech, the fans in attendance welcomed him with boos. The jeering began even before he approached the podium.
Trump was unperturbed.
He told fans, "Vince and I have had an amazing relationship for many years." While talking up his impact with WWE, he also threw out mentions of his bestsellers and of his TV ratings. He claimed that among his many successes, the WWE Hall was special to him.
"I consider this to be my greatest honor of all. I do," he said.
Trump made sure to stir up discussion before he left the stage. The businessman challenged McMahon to a fight, this time man-to-man. He was plenty confident about how that would go down.
"I will kick his ass," he promised.
WWE WrestleMania @WrestleMania
"I will challenge @VinceMcMahon to a fight next year and I will kick his ass... Kick. His. Ass." - @RealDonaldTrump #WWEHOF2013-4-7 02:53:49
It's surreal to watch any of Trump's WWE appearances now that he is deep into the 2016 presidential race.
He is and will likely remain the only WWE Hall of Famer to earn the Republication nomination. He is the only person to ever both participate in a presidential debate and receive a Stone Cold Stunner.
Trump began as a business ally and promoter. His role increased over time. He was too good of a match for the brazenness and bluster of the squared circle to remain a spectator.
It was only natural for him to go from being a carnival barker to one of the lion tamers inside the tent.