Start with the hagiography, which is more-or-less accurate -- Vince McMahon saw the early 80s wrestling scene for what it was: a loose network of lazy fiefdoms that had little concern beyond booking around one big star, using Saturday morning TV to sell tickets to the arena show, and trading stars around the country to keep things in any particular territory fresh. Vince signed away the big stars, got his programming on national television, and toured the country pulling fans away from regional shows and to the (then-) WWF shows. He signed Hulk Hogan from the AWA, got wrestlers on Saturday Night Live and MTV, put Mr. T in the ring at Wrestlemania, and set about systematically clearing up the country's confusion as to whether or not they should say their prayers and take their vitamins (yes to both, it turns out.) He put nearly all of his competitors out of business and he and Hogan made millions.
Like all popular things, Hulkamania eventually faded and by that point there were essentially only two wrestling promoters left: Vince, and Ted Turner. Turner owned the Superstation and got into wrestling after a deal he had with Vince turned sour, and so for both men it is somewhat personal. Turner had a bottomless checkbook but prefered to let surrogates run the company for him, while Vince was scrappy and personally invested. That paid off when Vince discovered that a great many Americans harbored a desire to assault their boss, and they will gladly pay money to live vicariously through a foul-mouthed Texan who did just that. His feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin did business like never before. Vince took the company public and became a billionaire, and a few years after that won the war and bought out Turner's company. (He went on to hire one of Turner's more prominent surrogates, Eric Bischoff, and paid him quite well for a number of years. He also booked an angle where Bischoff was forced to defend his job on live television, then Vince fired him and literally threw him into a garbage truck.)
Currently, WWE is a juggernaut of television, touring and merchandise. He bet big on creating his own online network, a gamble which has cut the value of the company's stock in half, but inside the wrestling business Vince has played the long game and won every time.
Again, as a wrestling promoter Vince is essentially undefeated. As anything other than a wrestling promoter, though, he has never won. Every other substantial business venture Vince has attempted has failed. He founded the XFL in 2000 and took a run at the NFL, only to fold one year later. From SB Nation's oral history of the XFL, Steve Ehrhart, USFL executive director and vice president/general manager of the XFL's Memphis Maniax:
I remember The Rock (wrestler turned actor Dwayne Johnson), he got on TV and said, "We're going to stick this right up the tail" - in very blunt terms - "of the NFL." And of course that offended a lot of the NFL people. It probably would've been better if we said, "Let's not go try to attack the king right now. Let's build ourselves." That was probably an unfortunate strategy, to stick your finger in the eye of the king. The king had too big an army.
That's Vince. His businesses don't fail in spite of him, they fail because of him. Watch the Rock promo mentioned above, and know that it's at Vince's direction:
Vince doesn't just want to put forth what he has, he wants everyone to know that what the other guy has is garbage. Vince McMahon does not look to undermine, he does not chip at foundations until houses fall. He parks a tank in the street, gives you to the count of three, and comes through the wall of the dinette on two.
To Vince's credit, supplanting the single most popular thing in America is a difficult task. But outside of wrestling, Vince is no better at revamping fringe interests than he is at popular ones. Vince formed the World Bodybuilding Federation in 1990, and went about building it just as he had wrestling: he signed away stars away from the International Federation of Bodybuilders, long the dominant force in contests and magazines. He gave each of the bodybuilders distinct characters and booked angles where those characters clashed, just as wrestling had done for decades. He even booked stars, paying Regis Philbin to host the WBF's first pay-per-view. It's hard to see why it wouldn't work, assuming you're Vince McMahon. If you're not Vince you already know that many people think bodybuilding is gross and weird, and it is not something they want to take their kids to see or watch on a Saturday night. McMahon ran the WBF for two years and, $15 million in the hole, finally gave in.
Vince has some seriously questionable business decisions under his belt, but Michael Jordan's lifetime batting average is .202.
Vince McMahon has swag. I mean this very literally, in that his walk is heavily infused with a swagger:
It isn't just the money driving the strut. Vince isn't just a man putting on a show, he is a show, a magnificent spectacle unlike anything else. Vince was in his 50s when he feuded with Stone Cold, and yet the first time he took his shirt off for a match fans realized he was just as inflated as a good many of the wrestlers in his company.
Vince is probably 53 or 54 in this photo, and I shouldn't have to note how insanely jacked he is for someone in their mid-50s. Look at those deltoids! Vince has always put a premium on wrestlers having a certain body, and it is no small thing that when he became a wrestler he did his best to keep up. The effort involved, the, uh, supplements. And it didn't stop there. Consider him at age 60:
Look at that chest! And this is after Vince blew out both of his quads sliding into the ring at the Royal Rumble. Vince's own body is trying very hard to give up, but Vince isn't having it.
But lots of people have nice bodies, and lots of athletes push them beyond reasonable places. But Vince isn't Vince because of the body, the body is what it is because of Vince. He's just as brash and just as showy in a suit.
Vince and WWE weathered a lot of criticism following the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit, and much of it deservedly so. Benoit was revealed to have been a steroid user for a long, long time and made use of a number of further drugs. This meant a lot of Nancy Grace talking down Vince, but it also meant Vince was eventually called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was looking to get to the bottom of abuse of drugs and steroids in professional wrestling. (Transcripts have been edited solely to turn multiple questioners into a streamlined Q&A with Vince, and the unedited versions can be found here.) Having seen the above photos, Vince is asked whether he is tested under WWE drug policy:
Q: In your role as WWE talent are you subject to the provisions of the Wellness Policy?
Vince: Let me answer where I think you're going. I do not test. I'm 62 years old. The Wellness Policy is a policy designed for talent that's regularly scheduled to compete, which I may wrestle a couple times a year. And not only not regularly scheduled, at 62 I'm not exactly a 24‐year‐old guy of which we're concerned for his wellness. So I don't fall in the category.
Q: So you're not subject to the terms of the Wellness Policy?
Far from rattled by being in front of Congress, Vince dismisses their concerns. They bring up legendary sportswriter Frank Deford's negative coverage of the company, and Vince is having fun:
Vince: Look, I've borrowed one of Frank Deford's shoes one night. He doesn't like me.
Q: Are you familiar with his story?
Vince: No. Other than Frank Deford wrote something derogatory. But, you know, he has no sense of humor and he doesn't like me. We were bowling one night and I borrowed one of his shoes and he never found it. And so he had to walk home in a bowling shoe and one of his others, and he was upset about that I understand.
Q: I'm going to have to note that would be upsetting too.
Q: Now we know the rest of the story.
[McMahon's attorney Jerry McDevitt]: You're hearing something for the first time, too. I never heard that one.
Vince: Well, actually I also borrowed one of his wife's shoes, too.
McDevitt: That's a whole different story.
Vince: I left that part out.
Let that be a lesson to anyone called before Congress: There's no reason you can't start doing schtick.
Earlier in the interview, Vince had attempted the Smiles on Faces maneuver. This is the company line when deflecting criticism, wherein whoever is giving it asserts that WWE is a force for good in the world, just a humble bunch of performers doing their best to entertain folks spending their hard-earned dollars. They put smiles on faces, see? He goes on to suggest that this might be a witch hunt, designed to penalize him or imply that things within his company are not proper.
Q: Well, nobody is trying to penalize anybody.
Vince: Then I would expect a gold star on my lapel when I leave this room.
Q: We'll look for a gold star.
Vince McMahon, ladies and gentlemen. I don't know whether or not he ever got that gold star, but he sure did deserve it.
Vincent Kennedy McMahon is the greatest promoter of professional wrestling to have ever taken aim at a mark. No matter what else I say about him, remember that. Pro wrestling has an odd role in American pop culture, but it addresses a pseudo-emotional entertainment need for a wide swath of people. No one has ever met that need better than Vince, and if Vince had been content to live his life doing just that his score would be a 10 and we would be done. Vince, thankfully, is rarely content.
Previously on SB Nation Reviews: Willie McGee | The Vinces | Michael Chang