No sooner had Vince McMahon, Sr., brought his namesake into the world of professional wrestling than he was trying to protect him from it. Vince, Jr., may have convinced his stepmother to dye his hair blond so he could emulate Dr. Jerry Graham, but Vince, Sr., put the kibosh on his son ever lacing up the boots. Undeterred, Vince remained on the periphery of his father's business into his adult life.
By 1969, though, with a wife and new baby boy to support, Vince took to the road as a traveling salesman so he could provide for them.
When the elder McMahon's ring announcer demanded a union rate, the promoter took advantage of a loophole that stated the rate wouldn't apply to family, and Vince McMahon's career in television began. Whether Senior would have invited his ambitious son into the business otherwise remains unknown.
If Vince had taken to promoting as naturally as he had taken to broadcasting, WrestleMania would have premiered a decade earlier. Instead, Vince and Linda spent the 1970's learning the trade through measured successes and resounding failures. In time, though, other promoters, such as Bob Arum and even Vince, Sr., he of proud Gaelic stock and not one for praise, all came to realize that Vince, Jr., had great instincts in need of an outlet.
According to Sex, Lies and Headlocks, Vince, Jr. and Arum generated incredible publicity for what turned out to be Evel Knievel's completely underwhelming jump across Snake River Canyon in 1974. Unsure he'd cross the divide, Knievel didn't commit to the jump and released his chute moments after his tires left the ramp.
Two years later, McMahon and Arum would again join forces to promote the Muhammad Ali/Antonio Inoki boxer versus wrestler debacle. Vince himself wrote the script for the match. Ali liked it, and it would have sent fans of both athletes home happy. Unfortunately, McMahon was not in attendance on fight night to reassure egos and diffuse situations, and the event spiraled into another high-profile bust.
For those things McMahon could control, however, he was making glacial-paced gains. In 1973, Maine was the one spot on Senior's map without a local promoter, and he gave his son the make or break opportunity to see if he could finally make something of himself in the wrestling world he so much wanted to join. Rather than reinvent the wheel, McMahon focused on what worked, and introduced new ideas to the old rasslers gradually, such as encouraging them to make use of the space by taking the fight to the floor, or even the parking lot, to add variety to the card.
By 1979, Vince and Linda were essentially renting-to-own the Cape Cod Coliseum, hosting and learning from all manner of acts, from hockey to the Harlem Globetrotters, all while Vince was still working on-air for the WWF, interviewing his father's star attractions, such as the "Incredible" Hulk Hogan.
He'd been calling himself "Hulk" to capitalize on the popular Incredible Hulk television series, and Vince, Sr., suggested the "Hogan" because he liked his wrestlers to have last names, and all the better one from the Emerald Isle. When the opportunity to film Rocky III rolled along, Senior wasn't convinced one thing had to do with the other and didn't want Hogan to participate. Like Vince, Jr., though, Hogan had learned to trust his instincts, and the once-in-a-lifetime gambit was too good to pass up, even if it meant leaving the WWF.
Hogan returned to the ring at the AWA, where promoter Verne Gagne, on the other hand, was keenly aware the kind of publicity a Sylvester Stallone film could generate for his territory. After all, Gagne himself had produced and starred in The Wrestler (1974), for exactly that purpose (Vince, Sr., and other members of the NWA board even made cameos).
Wrestling the incomparable Nick Bockwinkle and trading promos with the hated Bobby Heenan, Hogan's time in the AWA was a master class, but it was apparent to all that the man possessed a star quality that could not be taught—just exploited. Hogan said that during one match, all he did was turn to the crowd, and to his surprise, they erupted. He began to develop his character focusing on that kind of connection with the fans, and their frenzied adoration of him was unlike anything seen in the sport before—a kind of "mania".
Like Vince, Sr., Gagne underestimated Hogan's savvy, and when the top draw started inquiring about his cut of the merchandising profits, the relationship soured.
By the spring of 1983, Vince, Jr., knew Hogan was the man to lead his great campaign to make the WWF the premiere wrestling organization in the world, and he gambled everything he and Linda had to present Senior (and his partners Phil Zacko, Gorilla Monsoon and Arnold Skaaland) with an offer to purchase the promotion. Senior accepted—on the condition that if Vince and Linda missed a scheduled payment, the deal was off.
Under that Sword of Damocles, the couple went to work, gaining national exposure by packaging syndicated programming, as well as producing the innovative Tuesday Night Titans, which became the highest rated show on the fledgling USA Network. Whatever gentleman's agreement Senior had with the National Wrestling Alliance about not crossing over into each others territories, television had already brought the new WWF into their living rooms, and Vince, Jr., brazenly asserted that the promoters could sell their territories to him, or compete against him in their own backyards.
It's no understatement to say that Hulk Hogan also risked everything headlining those shows. If the WWF failed, at best he'd never wrestle in North America again, and at worst... blame it on kayfabe those death threats sounded so convincing.
In Hitman, Bret Hart recalled the moment Harley Race unexpectedly showed up in a WWF locker room and made a beeline for Hogan. Race is considered by his peers to be the most legitimately tough man to ever step inside a ring, and as the promoter of the historic St. Louis territory, he had everything to lose in McMahon's power play. Race slapped Hogan on the ribs, and when the champ turned and saw who it was, went ashen. Race laughed and embraced him, to a relieved locker room. Though Race had initially been vocal against McMahon, he saw the writing on the wall.
A chance meeting on a plane in 1984 between Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano sparked music producer David Wolff to conceive of what would later be called the rock 'n wrestling connection. What began as an attempt to promote the singer's upcoming album mushroomed beyond all expectations into a phenomenon, giving the fledgling MTV its highest ratings when it broadcast three WWF specials. Now that Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper were household names, and everyone from Andy Warhol to Danny DeVito wanted to be seen ringside at MSG, McMahon cannily parlayed the exposure into promoting a supercard for closed circuit television.
Once again, Vince and Linda gambled the house on a far off vision, shelling out $90,000 alone to the PR firm Bozell and Jacobs. The success of WrestleMania ensured that the business model of professional wrestling, and ultimately the future of entertainment, would hinge on pay-per-view. The territory lines had been dissolved, and now the field was open to any promoter who had the gumption to make a national presence. The WrestleMania Generation of WWE Superstars, led by Hogan and Piper, captured the imagination of kids worldwide, and established wrestling once again as a mainstream family entertainment option, where it remains.
Yet, for all of that progress, the yoke of kayfabe lingered, the last vestiges of wrestling's carnival roots. To protect their tricks, carnies talked in a kind of pig Latin, and "kayfabe" must have been some kind of bastardization to indicate a gag was "fake".
For every Bob Costas or Steve Allen who were happy to take part in the unique experience of WWF events, there was a John Stossel or Richard Belzer who treated the issue of "is it real or is it fake" as though they were breaking Watergate. And the Stossels and Belzers and every tough guy at the local watering hole soon learned how diligently The Boys protected the business. It had been ingrained in them. The seal was so tight that sons of wrestlers, guys like Ted DiBiase and Bret Hart, didn't even know what their fathers did was a work.
In his biography, Bobby Heenan recounted a humorous incident where heels and faces were gabbing in a hotel hallway. The elevator opened, and a couple not affiliated with the industry were standing there. Instantly, to protect the business, the wrestlers took to fighting!
If wrestling was ever going to be acknowledged with any measure of respect, kayfabe had to go. Whether or not Vince McMahon envisioned such a thing, the opportunity presented itself to him in the 1990's when a tax loophole favored entertainments instead of sporting events, which is what WWE had always been classified.
McMahon understood better than anyone that this seismic shift in thought and deed would be the Galilio moment of the wrestling industry. Nonetheless, he trusted his instincts, the context of his decision and its timing.
On Dec. 15, 1997, an exuberant McMahon looked into the camera and told the world, "We, in the WWF, think that you, the audience, are, quite frankly, tired of having your intelligence insulted."
Though it would take a number of years and various projects, including Wrestling with Shadows, Mick Foley's books, Beyond the Mat and Tough Enough, to absorb this new outlook into the public consciousness, perceptions have finally shifted where the culture is now acknowledging wrestlers for their one-of-a-kind craft.