Vince McMahon's Failed Attempt to Take over Bodybuilding

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterNovember 27, 2015

World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon is shown at a news conference in New York City on July 16, 1991.  McMahon admits to having used steroids that he received from Dr. George T. Zahorian III, who was convicted last month of illegally selling the body building drug.  McMahon made the announcement to answer allegations that the WWF is rife with steroid use.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
RICHARD DREW/Associated Press

Vince McMahon, already the sultan of the squared circle, wanted to expand his empire to bodybuilding.

He looked to do to bodybuilding what he did to pro wrestling: amplify its spectacle, make it larger than life and have it grow from niche sport to entertainment phenomenon. In 1990, the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) owner created the World Bodybuilding Federation, his second company built around oiled-down, muscular men. 

The narrative arcs of the two enterprises couldn't be more different.

WWE grew from a regional promotion into a global giant. McMahon's company saw wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, The Rock and John Cena become household names. WWE regularly pulls in over two-and-a-half million viewers (over three on a good week) to Raw each Monday night. When WrestleMania travels to a city each spring, the economic impact is felt in the millions. 

WWE travels everywhere, from Abu Dhabi to Montreal.

The WBF did not make those kinds of journeys, and it did not experience that kind of success. Instead, it died in its infancy.  

Looking back, it made a certain amount of sense that McMahon would try his hand at bodybuilding. In many ways, that world overlapped the one he had already mastered. Pro wrestling and bodybuilding share a hyper-masculinity and adoration for bulking physiques.

Gary Strydom during his WBF days.
Gary Strydom during his WBF days.Credit: WWE.com

Some of the WWE's most notable performers had crossed over from bodybuilding, including Ultimate Warrior, "Superstar" Billy Graham and Jimmy Snuka.

With WWE a major success, Hulkamania still going wild and no shortage of funds at his disposal, McMahon looked to cross over in the other direction. Not surprisingly, he would do so while borrowing heavily on what had worked for him in pro wrestling.

The announcement of his arrival into the sport of bodybuilding was the kind of bombastic act one sees regularly on WWE programming.

 

The Inception

As he had done each year since 1984, Lee Haney took home the top prize in the Mr. Olympia competition. History had repeated itself again. But while the victor remained the same as the previous year, there was soon to be an upsetting of tradition afterward.

An audience gathered in Chicago's Arie Crown Theater for the closing ceremonies. This is where sponsors now gave their pitches, where the tenants of the bodybuilding world chatted about the poses and physiques they had just witnessed.

McMahon was one of those sponsors. He had paid $5,00 for a booth at the event, supposedly to promote his new bodybuilding magazine—Bodybuilding Lifestyles.

Tom Platz, McMahon's soon-to-be director of talent development, took the stage. Platz, a well-known bodybuilder himself, addressed the crowd. As if he was the leader of a pro wrestling faction announcing his intentions to invade a wrestling company, he laid down the gauntlet.  

As Irving Muchnick recalled in Wrestling Babylon, Platz said, "I have a very important announcement to make. We at TitanSports and Bodybuilding Lifestyles magazine are pleased to announce the formation of the World Bodybuilding Federation. And we're going to kick the IFBB's ass!"

This was at an event run by the kings of bodybuilding—the Weiders.

Joe and Ben Weider co-founded the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). The Weiders played a major role in the growth of professional bodybuilding. If one stumbled onto a publication about the sport, it was likely published by Weider Publications. Muscle BuilderMuscle Power and Mr. America were all part of the Weider kingdom.

And now here they were, listening to a rival emerging out of nowhere, announcing his intentions to take them down.

The Weiders weren't the only ones who were shocked. In an article Muchnick wrote for Spy, entitled "Pimping Iron" (h/t Classic Wrestling Articles), he described the scene of the audience's reaction: "The audience fell silent, and leggy models in slinky black evening gowns and Bodybuilding Lifestyles sashes emerged from the wings to distribute handbills promising 'bodybuilding as it was meant to be'—a code phrase, some thought, for 'no drug testing.'"

To climb to where he stood in wrestling, McMahon had challenged and defeated the National Wrestling Alliance. He defiantly ignored borders that the NWA created for wrestling territories. The gamble made him enemies, just as it made him a surfeit of money.

In bodybuilding, it was the IFBB who stood in his way.

McMahon usurped that organization's own event to launch his own. He soon plucked some of the bodybuilders from the IFBB, promised higher pay and went to work promoting an event he must have hoped would eventually replace Mr. Olympia as the sport's signature competition. 

Event One

A major key to the first WrestleMania's success was the stacked roster McMahon had assembled by luring top wrestlers from several promotions. If he hadn't nabbed Hogan from the American Wrestling Association, Wendi Richter from Stampede Wrestling or Roddy Piper from Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, the supercard wouldn't have been nearly as super.

McMahon seemed to take the same approach in 1991 when he assembled a stock of musclebound men for the WBF's statement show.

Mike Christian, Berry DeMey, Jim Quinn and Eddie Robinson were among the top bodybuilders he signed despite the Weiders threatening to blacklist anyone who left for McMahon's group. Upping these guys' pay certainly helped in having them ignore those threats.

The WBF's lineup on display.
The WBF's lineup on display.Credit: WWE.com

Peter McGough wrote for Flex Magazine (h/t GetBig.com), "In recruiting the 13 musclemen, the WBF has flourished megabucks. For instance, it was reported that Gary Strydom had a three-year deal worth $400,000 per year."

And like at WrestleMania, McMahon looked to lean on both the power of celebrity and spectacle with his bodybuilding showcase.

McMahon booked Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on June 15, 1991 for the posedown competition. Regis Philbin agreed to host. WWE's Miss Elizabeth and "Macho Man" Randy Savage made appearances. It had a WWE feel far beyond those personalities popping in, though.

As noted in Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon by John D. Fair, Jan Paul reported that this was "the most lavishly appointed and professionally produced bodybuilding show ever seen, complete with dancing girls, flashing lights, costumes, pulsating theme music, special effects and Las Vegas-style glitz aplenty."

Out of the neon-tinged fog, Gary Strydom emerged the winner of the first WBF championship.

The South African with the gleaming smile and tanned, bulging physique was the company's centerpiece attraction. 1988's Mr. Olympia not only had the build for the sport, he had more charisma than most of his peers.

Fans saw a glimpse of that during his poses that night. While McMahon provided animated commentary, Strydom bent down to one knee, curled his left hand under his chin and gave the crowd a sugary, playful smile. It was moments like that, along with his striking, handsome face, that had him stand out. If any of McMahon's brawny crew was going to be a star outside of bodybuilding, it was him.

McMahon had to be hoping that Strydommania would take off as much as Hulkamania did. 

Bodystars and Star Power

The average Joe didn't know any bodybuilders outside of Arnold Schwarzenegger. McMahon wanted to change that. He created WBF Bodystars, a show that was meant to introduce the viewers to his bodybuilders and provide a place for them to display their personalities, or more accurately their WWE-style personas.

The wrestling kingpin essentially wanted to make each of his bodybuilders a wrestling character.

Ditching his glasses for a black hood, Johnnie Morant became "The Executioner.Troy Zuccolotto employed a surfer gimmick and went as "California Personified." No longer just Aaron Baker, "Dark Angel" donned a glittery red cape with a pointed collar.  

"Dark Angel" Aaron Baker posing for WBF.
"Dark Angel" Aaron Baker posing for WBF.Credit: WWE.com

This kind of over-the-top presentation had certainly worked for McMahon at WWE. Adding flair, grandeur and sometimes absurdity transformed wrestling. It's hard to reconcile that the same art form that Lou Thesz practiced is the one that provided Bastion Booger his means of employment.

McMahon looked to use the same playbook to expand bodybuilding's audience.

He also hoped that the star power of the WWE would help bolster the burgeoning WBF. Wrestlers did several plugs for Bodystars as the Ultimate Warrior did on wrestling staples like Wrestling Challenge.

Using his usual over-the-top delivery, the face-painted powerhouse talked mildew, hunger, desire and of course, the WBF:

There were constant attempts to connect the two worlds, to siphon the popularity of WWE into his new endeavor. Macho Man cut a promo to promote WBF. WWE's Bobby Heenan, The Mountie and Sherri Martel appeared opposite the WBF stars on an episode of Family Feud.

And McMahon went as far as to have a wrestler co-host Bodystars.

Lex Luger talked with the wrestling tycoon about leaving rival WCW. If he did, though, he wouldn't be able to wrestle right away, thanks to a standard non-compete clause. A solution surfaced.

As Luger explained in Wrestling with the Devil, he asked McMahon, "What do you think about signing me to a one-year WBF bodybuilding contract if I can get out of my wrestling contract with the WCW?"

McMahon agreed, had him share hosting duties with Cameo Kneuer and looked to further the WBF-WWE overlap. Luger appeared at WrestleMania VIII in an interview via satellite in a WBF muscle shirt to talk up the bodybuilding promotion. He was the face of some Bodystars spots, the bodybuilders pushed to the background while the wrestler played pitch man.

In search of name power, McMahon also signed the retired Lou Ferrigno of Incredible Hulk fame in 1991.

As noted in the Daily News, the actor said of his move to the WBF, "I have a childhood dream to be the greatest in bodybuilding in the world." Passion aside, he wasn't an elite bodybuilder at this point. He was 40 by the time McMahon signed him, 17 years removed from being a professional bodybuilder.

But he was far more known among the general public than Strydom and company. That's where his value lied.

It didn't matter.

He would not end up being WBF's savior, central star or much of anything really. Ferrigno's tenure, like WBF itself, was short-lived. He darted out of the company not long before it imploded.

The End, the Phone Call

If a writing student were to recount the tale of WBF's demise in a novel, a writing professor would likely tell the writer to slow down. Normally, empires crumble slowly, not at the breakneck pace that McMahon's company did.

From June 1991 to June 1992, the WBF went from promising upstart to sputtering embarrassment.

Luger, set to appear at the second WBF event, tore up his arm in a motorcycle accident. He would not be bringing his star power, however minor it may have been, to the show. Ferrigno backed out before that. 

Lex Luger
Lex LugerCredit: WWE.com

More importantly, a cloud of controversy hung over McMahon's head. Allegations of steroids would eventually lead to federal charges. At the time, they led to McMahon implementing a stricter drug policy for his WBF musclemen. 

The sudden change had an obvious effect on these men's bodies.

At the 1992 competition in Long Beach, California, the bodybuilders did not look like bodybuilders. Mike Quinn's belly hung over his trunks. Mike Christian looked weak and much smaller than his standard competition build.

In Sex, Lies and Headlocks, Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham wrote about the shift in the bodybuilders' appearance: "They grew tiny, bloated, and sullen. One experimented with a high-fat diet and simply got fat."

With no Ferrigno, no Luger and no drugs in his bodybuilders' veins, the second event flopped. Assael and Mooneyham noted that one Massachusetts cable company recorded just 20 pay-per-view buys.

Still, it was treated in terms of flair like it was as big of an event as SummerSlam. Fireworks shot into the air. Lights flashed. Music thumped.

When announcer Bobby Heenan called "The Future" Jim Quinn's posing exhibition, it sounded much like it would were he to be introducing The Undertaker in that spot.

The WBF had failed to catch fire as WWE did in the '80s. All the added pizazz and WWE crossover didn't turn bodybuilding into any less of a niche sport.

Instead, it bled money. Fair wrote that Bodybuilding Lifestyles magazine "was losing as much as $200,000 a month." Angie Peterson Kaelberer estimated in The McMahons that the WBF "lost about $15 million dollars."

On July 15, 1992, McMahon tapped out. The bodybuilding group disbanded. The Weider brothers soon received a phone call from their rival in which McMahon informed them that his journey into bodybuilding was over.

McGough wrote, "The reason for McMahon's astonishing phone call to the brothers Weider, presumably, was that he wished to ensure he would be able to advertise Icopro products (the supplement he had millions invested in) in Muscle & Fitness, and Flex."

The bodybuilders scrambled to get back into the IFBB, with penalties awaiting those who re-entered the group.

As for McMahon, the WBF failure didn't stop his continued ascent up the pro wrestling mountain; neither did the steroid trial. Over 20 years later, WWE is far and away the No. 1 wrestling company.

More than 76,000 fans crammed into Levi's Stadium for WrestleMania 31, an event that grossed $12.6 million, per WWE.com.

The WBF has since become a footnote, both in bodybuilding history and in McMahon's story. Infusing pro wrestling's elements into that sport didn't work.

McMahon is not one to give up, however. Less than a decade after the WBF's last days, he announced the formation of the XFL—the brash, over-the-top version of football that went head-to-head with the NFL.

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