In 1954 the French philosopher Roland Barthes produced a learned essay about the "mythology" of professional wrestling. Among other things, he wrote, "The virtue of wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters.... Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: In both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve."
Which brings us directly to WrestleMania VII. For in the latest of the World Wrestling Federation's annual editions of mad, mad, mad myths-on-a-mat, we will indeed experience another spectacle of excess—unfortunately, however, minus the prescribed "light without shadow." The event will take place indoors in the Los Angeles Sports Arena this Sunday before a sellout crowd of 16,000. Originally, Spectacle of Excess VII was scheduled to unroll in all its absurd glory on the sun-drenched floor of the Los Angeles Coliseum before some 100,000 spectators. Due to the gulf war, the attendant fear of terrorism and the necessity of a complex (and expensive) security system to guarantee everyone's safety outdoors, a decision was made late in January to move the show into the Arena, and everything has been reduced in scale from gargantuan to pretty big.
It is a shame, for revenue expectations at the Coliseum had been marvelously gross: a live gate of $3 million, novelty purchases of $1 million, food and beverage purchases of $750,000. These are totals that have been exceeded by no other Coliseum attractions save the 1984 Summer Olympics and the Super Bowl, which also happen to be the only other major sports spectacles pretentious enough to use Roman numerals to keep track of which is which. In the Arena, the gate for Wrestlemania VII will be about $750,000, novelties about $150,000 and edibles $100,000. However, audiences tuned in elsewhere are expected to produce $25 million in pay-per-view TV (at $29.95 per set), $500,000 from closed-circuit theater locations and $3 million from videocassettes.
Be it myth, sport, spectacle or simply wretched excess, pro wrestling has in recent years emerged from squalid halls and remodeled itself—up to a point. The current WWF version retains the classic mythical images of wrestling—what Barthes called "the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice." But there is another kind of myth on display, an American business myth that has sprung from the brow of a huckster/genius who excels at the non-Greek arts of marketing, television production, merchandising and a unique type of cross-media promotion that combines comic-book hype with hard-core hokum to produce a showbiz package so flamboyant that it makes the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade look like a Russian funeral procession.
The man who has given birth to this garish package is a tall, bulging bodybuilder named Vincent K. McMahon, 44. To fans of the WWF, he is well known as one of the often clownish TV announcers who—in their hoarse efforts to describe what is going on in the ring—seem to sweat, bellow and suffer even more than the wrestlers themselves. But there is nothing clownish about Vince McMahon the businessman.
estimated that McMahon was "easily a centimillionaire," and he has gotten even richer since then. The umbrella corporation that McMahon formed over WWF and its subsidiaries is called TitanSports, Inc. WrestleMania VII is only the iceberg tip of this unique $500 million corporate empire. Titan-Sports competes successfully in a wide variety of industries—including live entertainment, syndicated TV, pay-per-view TV, video-cassettes, magazine publishing, catalog merchandise and children's toys. The corporation employs more than 300 people scattered throughout three different buildings in downtown Stamford, Conn. Next month, TitanSports will move into its brand new $10 million, four-story corporate headquarters, with the Stamford address of 1 Titan Tower: The facilities include a daycare center and a company restaurant.
The single most essential, and most amazing, reason for McMahon's success is that he not only has moved wrestling out of the grim, smoke-choked environments of its past but he also has turned it into high-gloss family entertainment. These days, WWF wrestling shows compete for audiences with the Ice Capades, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Harlem Globetrotters and Walt Disney Productions.
Steve Allen once joked while broadcasting a wrestling match in the late 1940s, "Leone gives Smith a full nelson, slipping it up from either a half nelson or an Ozzie Nelson." And this is exactly what Vince McMahon has done: He has lifted this ugly old game to the top shelf of American niceness and launched it into its Ozzie Nelson Age.
If anyone was born to be a wrestling promoter, it was McMahon. His grandfather Jess was the boxing matchmaker at Madison Square Garden during the era of Tex Rickard and later worked as a wrestling promoter in New York and Philadelphia. His father, Vincent J., controlled wrestling over much of the northeastern U.S., from the 1950s until young Vince bought him out nine years ago.
Nat Frank, a language-busting old-style sports columnist for the Philadelphia Observer, wrote this paean to the elder McMahons in 1964: "It was Jess McMahon who held the unique distinction of having put together the initial series of punchfests marking the opening of the then new New York City's Madison Square Garden, the mecca of pugilism. After several seasons in Philadelphia, the powerful and idolized Jess McMahon returned to the Great Fight Way to continue his interest in staging the clouting cards. However, he added the sport of wrestling to his promotions. His chief aide was a son, Vince, who handled all of the details, made the rounds with his father. There was noticed the willingness of the McMahon offspring to learn more and more about the bone-bending art. He made mental notes, thought some of the ideas didn't quite jell with his opinions; but then and there he vowed he would go places in the grip-and-get-gripped field. To make a long story short (because of space limitations) this very same Vince McMahon is the recognized top man in all grappledom."