So we acknowledge McMahon as a master strategist who has conquered just about every bit of territory in grappledom. But in the course of obtaining this near monopoly, he has made radical changes in the esthetics, the ethics and, in effect, the very essence of pro wrestling as the world had previously understood it.
"The difference between Dad's and Granddad's day and my day is pure presentation," McMahon says. "There was too much emphasis on the sports element and not enough on entertainment in the old days. Now we call it sports entertainment. We don't want to de-emphasize the athleticism of wrestling; these are great athletes with great charisma. But in the WWF, entertainment is the key."
As everyone knows, the WWF's idea of entertainment is an often tasteless explosion of high-camp fun starring costumed buffoons the size of zeppelins who ride into an arena on waves of hilarious hype and deafening rock music. It is a unique mix of entertainment, ranging from Saturday morning cartoons to MTV and from Greek drama to bullfights.
Wildly popular as this form of wrestling has come to be, old-timers do not see WWF-style presentations as examples of the bone-bending art at its best. Lou Thesz, 74, who retired from active wrestling in December, after a 55-year career during which he held championship belts in many different fiefdoms, is critical of the WWF. " McMahon's wrestlers aren't wrestling, they're putting on tumbling acts," he says. "On a scale of one to 10, McMahon gets a 9.5 for hype, music, presentation before the match. But after the bell rings, his shows don't rate above zero. He has raped wrestling."
Even more troubling to many old loyalists and purists is the fact that the WWF declared publicly in February 1989 that pro wrestling is not a true sport. In a statement delivered by the WWF to the New Jersey Senate as it was about to vote on a bill that would remove wrestling from the jurisdiction of the state athletic commission (which levies a 10% surtax on profits from sports TV revenues), the WWF said that, henceforth, professional wrestling should be defined this way: "An activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest."
This admission was not big news to most people. As Roland Barthes put it so lucidly some 35 years ago: "The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.... This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling it would make no sense."
True enough. Yet, predictably, the WWF's stance—pragmatic as it was—was very disturbing to old-fashioned wrestlers and wrestling aficionados. Art Abrams, 68, a longtime wrestling photographer and currently the treasurer of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a Los Angeles-based organization that has 1,400 wrestling-oriented members, says: "A lot of our people don't like what Vince McMahon has done. They think he went against the code. They think he destroyed the mystique. Sure, these guys all admit in private that it's show business, but they have remained loyal to the credo that you never admit that openly. They all feel you lose the gladiator glamour when you call it entertainment only." Maria Bernardi, 65, a former women's champion who wrestled competitively for 26 years, says, sadly: "I never considered it anything but a sport. To call it entertainment alone is to take away the pride we once had in being wrestlers."
Lots of people rushed to tell McMahon after the New Jersey confession that he had effectively bankrupted the WWF because the world would now reject his shows and return to promoters who continued the fiction that it was all real mayhem. "The doomsayers were everywhere," recalls Steve Planamenta, WWF's media director, "but we did better business for the rest of that year than we ever did before."
In fact, McMahon's most sensitive critics, the men and women who book WWF events into America's stadiums and arenas, have only praise for his decision. John Urban, director of the Family Entertainment Division of Madison Square Garden, which puts on eight or 10 WWF cards every year, says: "Once Vince moved past the big question—Is it real or not real?—they shook off the last vestiges of the old pro wrestling image. It became more respectable than ever. It used to be a cult—you either loved it or you despised it. People used to think, pro wrestling, ugh, Ice Capades, great. No more."
Peter Luukko, 31, until recently general manager of both the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Los Angeles Sports Arena (the Arena also puts on eight or nine WWF cards a year), says: "Wrestling always produced strong crowds, but it was often a very rough night—mostly males who were beer-drinkers and had a tendency to get into a lot of fights. That was as recently as seven or eight years ago. Vince not only called it entertainment, he made it over into real entertainment—rock music, hype, stars, lights—and that brought fans out of the closet from every age and economic group—teens, children under 10, film stars, attorneys, bankers and the blue-collar people who came before."