With a brawny, shirtless gladiator guarding each of them, Donald Trump and Vince McMahon sat on opposite sides of a table set up in a WWE ring, two moguls with commanding personalities staring each other down. Despite the obvious differences in appearance between The Donald and The Chairman, it felt like each man was looking into a mirror.
Trump's and McMahon's paths to their fortunes, their brashness and their frequent proximity to controversy are eerily alike.
That's part of what made the match WWE dubbed "The Battle of Billionaires" at WrestleMania 23 so appealing. After years of watching McMahon play the unyielding corporate tyrant, fans now witnessed a real-life Mr. McMahon take the stage to combat him. McMahon was about to be out-McMahoned.
Pro wrestling so often builds its stories around opposites, from good versus evil to David versus Goliath, but Trump and McMahon's WrestleMania showdown was a collision of two parallel forces.
Both men are no strangers to publicity and power. Both men have thrived in their fields despite all the lawsuits and bad press that have been fired their way.
On Raw in 2007, they made their clash at WWE's annual spectacle official. Their proxies (Bobby Lashley for Trump and the Samoan powerhouse Umaga for McMahon) would be doing the actual fighting, but in the case of defeat, it would be the executive who would lose their hair by way of a very public shaving.
That contract signing was the meeting of two like souls, a pair of prickly, nervy leaders of their respective empires, both armed with the same catchphrase: "You're fired!"
The narrative of how each man arrived to that point, how each came to sat on his respective throne, begins with each looking up to and eventually out-imagining his father.
Both Trump and McMahon went into the family business but expanded their fathers' kingdoms.
The two businessmen were born about a year apart. McMahon arrived first, as Pinehurst, North Carolina, welcomed him in the summer of 1945. Trump was born the next August in New York City.
Vince McMahon Sr. controlled WWE back when it was still known as Capitol Wrestling Corporation, which morphed into the World Wide Wrestling Federation and then the less-of-a-mouthful World Wrestling Federation.
The company called the Northeast home. Vince Jr. (often referred to as Vinnie) watched on as his father booked sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden and helped catapult Bruno Sammartino to megastardom.
Early on, young Vinnie emerged from business school eager to follow in his father's path. He began as an announcer and patiently waited for his time to hold the reins that his father gripped.
He did just that in 1983. McMahon Jr. flew into Manhattan to meet with his dad, spreading a pile of contracts onto the table. As Shaun Assael described in Sex, Lies and Headlocks, "The offer was held together with rubber bands."
And where Vinnie was looking to redefine pro wrestling, Trump had long been making changes in the world of real estate.
Trump's father, Fred was a real estate developer who headed Elizabeth Trump & Son.
Just as McMahon knew that he wanted to work in wrestling, Trump had his eyes on what his father did. The Donald eventually chose the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the few institutions that offered a degree in real estate studies.
Trump went to work for his father, whose company did much of its business in Brooklyn and Queens.
Fred, like Vince Sr., kept a focused area of operations. Their sons looked to spread their companies' influence, though.
Vinnie led the WWE's transformation from regional territory to global fixture. Not content to control the Northeast, he created WrestleMania and marketed Hulkamania en route to running the No. 1 wrestling company in the world.
Trump moved outward to a different degree. He saw money to be made in Manhattan and Atlantic City, in Toronto and Tampa.
Trump financial officer Allen Weisselberg said of Fred's enterprising son, as seen in Robert Slater's No Such Thing as Over-Exposure, "He respected what his father did and thought he was a brilliant man, but he had higher ideals, a bigger picture in mind."
That same sentiment is perfectly apt for McMahon as well.
Trump saw his father as too traditional and thought he lacked flash. That's just what led McMahon to rearrange how wrestling was done, from pushing against the established territory system to mixing celebrities into his product to delivering a more lavish, spectacle-driven show than anything his father had done.
Trump, meanwhile, was a bigger risk-taker than his father. He aggressively sought to acquire casinos and hotels, spreading his reach well beyond the New York border. The Donald collected buildings much the way McMahon stockpiled wrestlers from around the country.
In the end, each man became the king of his domain. There is no more famous promoter than McMahon. Even non-wrestling fans are familiar with his name, just as folks who know nothing about the real estate business can recognize Trump.
The hands-on workaholics both made their way into the billionaire's club. Forbes estimates Trump's net worth at $4 billion, and McMahon's at just over $1 billion. Along the way, both men put a chunk of that money into personal monuments and pageants of their own liking.
West of Holly Pond in Stamford, Connecticut, a large glass structure rises well above the trees next to it. A pair of flags, an American one and one bearing the WWE logo, flap from atop the gleaming building.
WWE headquarters, once known as Titan Towers, is not a massive building by New York City standards, but in the quieter Stamford, it's a highly reflective giant.
The building serves as the nerve center for an ever-traveling entity.
As functional as it is, there is still something showy about the place. Some of that is due to its size, while some of that is its wide glass face. Trump, however, has McMahon beat in the "opulent edifice" race.
Trump does much of his business from his 68-story tower in Midtown Manhattan. It's an immense place. If Titan Towers is Big John Studd, Trump Tower is Andre the Giant.
The hub of Trump's enterprise, much like the man who owns it, is loud and impossible not to notice.
Beyond a love of glass architecture, he and McMahon share a love of pageantry. McMahon's adoration for all things pomp is evident any time one turns on WWE programming. Glittery ropes, pyrotechnics, face paint and preening warriors fill up the screen on Raw and SmackDown each week.
The spectacle that Trump has financed is of a different variety all together.
Trump famously owned the Miss USA beauty pageant until this year. He bought up the parade of tiaras and evening gowns in 1996.
Investing in the pageant was a departure from Trump's expertise. It seemed to be more about passion than money, though. At times, he has sounded like a proud father when talking about Miss USA.
He told the New York Times in 1999, "What I do is successful because of the aesthetics. People love my buildings and my pageants."
And whereas Trump went out of his comfort zone to back a showcase of tight smiles, McMahon once put down stacks of money to parade muscle-bound bodybuilders in front of the camera.
In the early '90s, McMahon founded the World Bodybuilding Federation. He attempted to jazz up the world of bodybuilding by giving the performers names like Dark Angel and The Future.
It was the testosterone and steroid-drenched version of Trump's pageant. The failure of the WBF coincided with the feds' mounting a case against McMahon. With allegations of illegal steroid distribution hanging over his head, McMahon walked into court.
It was not the last time. Both he and Trump have had more than their fair share of dealings with judges and attorneys.
Controversy and Courtrooms
Provide legal services for either Trump or McMahon, and you're certain to remain busy.
Both men have both fended off a list of lawsuits fired their way and initiated several of their own. Trump's adventures in the courtroom began early in his career when he was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act.
In 1973, the Justice Department sued the Trump Management Corporation for discriminating "against blacks who wished to rent apartments in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island," as Marcus Baram of The Huffington Post wrote.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission came after him years later. As it stated in a 2002 press release, the commission accused Trump Hotels and Casinos, Inc., of "making misleading statements in the company's third-quarter 1999 earnings release."
And even as Trump hopes to march into the White House next year, lawsuits loom. One of these centers on claims of him running an educational institution that issued more empty promises than actual education.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a suit against Trump in 2013 that accused Trump University of making "false claims to cheat students out of their $35,000 tuition," according to The New York Post. Trump saw things differently:
The negative publicity that stemmed from these cases clearly hasn't doomed Trump's career.
Trump's businesses still thrived. Viewers still tuned in to The Apprentice. His presidential campaign has him pulling in stout numbers, as noted by NBC News' Mark Murray.
That's sounds a lot like McMahon's story. No matter the legal muck he has found himself in, he has climbed out each time.
In the early '90s, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York came after him, wielding accusations of illegal steroid distribution. Dr. George Zahorian was said to be working for McMahon, injecting the boss' collection of musclebound gladiators with juice.
While it looked like the trial would be the end of WWE or send McMahon to prison, nothing of the sort happened.
As Dan O'Sullivan put it writing for Vice Sports, "The trial ended in a schmozz, with a mishmash of sloppy legal errors and underwhelming witness testimony."
A sex scandal threatened to ruin McMahon, too. As Jim Wilson detailed in Chokehold: Pro Wrestling's Real Mayhem Outside the Ring, a former ring boy alleged that Terry Garvin, a road agent working for McMahon, sexually harassed him. There was talk of McMahon's covering up inappropriate behavior.
Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera both ran shows on the scandal.
In response, McMahon sued Tribune Broadcasting, as Wilson wrote with "reckless disregard of the truth."
Today, McMahon's lawyers have to battle a series of concussion lawsuits. Big Vito is among those contending that WWE "negligently or purposefully failed to diagnose concussions" during their tenures as wrestlers for the company, as reported by ABC News.
Ratings for Raw are down at the moment, but that's surely a result of Monday Night Football's return to the airwaves, not public outcry over Big Vito's and others' accusations against McMahon's company.
WrestleMania 31 broke a litany of records. SummerSlam 2015 hit the mainstream with ESPN airing SportsCenter at the site of the pay-per-view and Jon Stewart agreeing to host.
Things remain prosperous for McMahon in spite of shadows stretching over his business. Trump is in that same club.
It's no wonder McMahon has invited Trump to be a part of WWE drama so often. The Donald is built for the business.
Pro wrestling is an enterprise built on larger-than-life personalities, brash talk and bold proclamations. Trump has each of those elements at the top of his toolbox.
The audience didn't see that side of McMahon at first. As an announcer, he blended into the product. Eventually, though, he morphed into the villainous Mr. McMahon, a loud, no-nonsense, power-hungry executive.
Nothing about the McMahon character is subtle.
He yells with veins bulging in his neck. He grins as he puts his foot on his enemy's throat.
And while Trump isn't ordering his underlings to nail anybody with a steel chair, there's an over-the-top nature to his personality that is reminiscent of McMahon's.
He holds little back. He's aggressive, unapologetic and loud, all qualities shared by the onscreen version of McMahon.
Trump stretches the truth like a wrestling promoter as well. McMahon has no issue with adding a few inches on one of his giants for the sake of entertainment. Trump does his truth-stretching elsewhere. As Simone Payment wrote in Donald Trump: Profile of a Real Estate Tycoon, Trump has "been accused of exaggerating his successes, like the height of his buildings and how much money he has."
McMahon's empire brims with hyperbole. The newest big bout is often referred to as the biggest match in WWE history.
The company has trotted out wrestlers known as The World's Most Dangerous Man, The World's Largest Athlete and The Eighth Wonder of the World.
And although Trump and McMahon sell vastly different products, they both do so at great volume and with a hit-the-audience-over-the-head style.
That's why so many critics have referred to Trump as a carnival barker. That's a part of why Sean Trainor of Salon called him "the second coming of P.T. Barnum."
Trump himself is aware of the non-subtlety of his approach. As seen in Slater's No Such Thing as Over-Exposure, Trump said, "I believe in doing things big. If you're going to go for it, go for it. Make it the biggest, make it the best."
Look at any WWE production, and it's clear that McMahon has the same philosophy. Massive wrestlers battle in massive stadiums with massive video screens hanging above them.
Each man has become more than a salesman. Each has become a vital part of his brand.
Trump went beyond buying up buildings to being the face of his hit reality show, The Apprentice. McMahon became his company's own best villain. Both of their brands expanded as a result of their own presence.
Trump's fame grew after his stints on TV. McMahon's name grew after serving as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's chief rival.
More recently, McMahon has stepped into the background on WWE programming. His daughter and son-in-law are now the dominant on-air tyrants. But as McMahon slides away from the spotlight, Trump rides ever closer to it.
McMahon's company is still an in-your-face enterprise, it's just that he has shifted his part it in. Trump, meanwhile, has become only more prominent thanks to his bid to be the United States' next president.
This is where the paths of the two workaholics part. McMahon remains busy looking to keep his current kingdom flourishing amid minimal competition. Trump, though, aggressively seeks a new crown, the emperor of edifices eager to broaden his reach.