The mustache, Adolphe Menjou meets Errol Flynn, foreshadowed the end. Muhammad Ali jarringly wore one prior to his disastrous fight with Larry Holmes. Now Vince McMahon, for the first time in his five decades or so in the spotlight, wears one, too.
Ari Emanuel’s Endeavor Group purchased World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) at a $9.3 billion valuation earlier this week. As an encore to Sunday’s WrestleMania, it left the WWE fanbase collectively looking like the guy in the Just Say Yes T-shirt after Undertaker lost at the big event for the first time nine years ago.
McMahon purchased the World Wrestling Federation 41 years ago for $500,000 from his father, who started the company under the Capitol Wrestling Corporation moniker almost three decades prior. Even George “the Animal” Steele could have calculated Monday that the initial payment added up to a wise investment.
The Capitol Wrestling Corporation promoting wrestling cards predated The Honeymooners, Elvis, and Interstate 95, where one currently spots the headquarters of its World Wrestling Entertainment successor promotion. That seven-decade span of McMahon family ownership saw the belt recognized by the outfit worn by Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena. Each man, in his way, reflected the times in which he reigned.
The public no longer watches westerns on television or laughs at Milton Berle the way it did in the early days of what became the WWE. But people still, some quite religiously, tune in to professional wrestling. In his ability to survive scandal and surrounding cultural shifts, Vince McMahon very much personifies his industry.
McMahon transformed the WWE from one of many competing regional promotions to a behemoth devouring competitors until it became, for a time, a virtual monopoly. It went from masquerading as a “real” sport to acknowledging its scripted nature in that time (it now bizarrely seeks to allow legalized betting on it). In the process, it crossed over from its hermetically sealed universe, of the type pornography now inhabits, into the mainstream by linking its storylines to the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, and Donald Trump. In doing so, its superstars, The Rock and Batista most conspicuously, became global stars.
Like so many dynasties, it became sclerotic and incestuous. The main event for Sunday night’s WrestleMania featured Roman Reigns, son of Sika of the Wild Samoans, against Cody Rhodes, son of former NWA world champion Dusty Rhodes. McMahon’s kids, like the second and third generations of other industry performers, played a role Sunday night, too. Like other traveling shows, some of the carnies look inbred.
Whereas McMahon once took major risks — poaching talent from the AWA and other rivals, betting all on the original WrestleMania succeeding, going R-rated to defeat WCW — Raw and Smackdown appear overly scripted and safe. A massive corporation buying this massive corporation likely makes it even more overly scripted and safe.
Next to Vince McMahon counting his billions, competitors AEW and Impact Wrestling rejoice most enthusiastically at this sale. Big and bulky makes for an intimidating wrestling champion. It does not describe an exciting, dynamic wrestling promotion. The landscape that changed when Vince McMahon purchased the WWF changes once again upon his selling the WWE.
That mustache that foreshadowed the end for the McMahon era briefly signaled some hope. Could this quite aristocratic-appearing facial hair mark a new, exciting iteration of the “Mr. McMahon” character, that ruthless, arrogant mishmash of Mr. Burns and Mr. Potter?
McMahon, in perhaps the most Mr. McMahon move ever, shot down that hope of fans. “Mr. McMahon is dead,” he explained in announcing the massive deal on CNBC. “That’s not gonna happen.”
If Shawn Michaels can superkick Marty Jannetty and Sgt. Slaughter can turn traitor, then Vince McMahon can bring back a mustachioed Mr. McMahon. One guesses, unfortunately, that he means to stay behind the scenes.
One necessarily takes massive risks in growing a $500,000 company into a $9.3 billion company. With billions in the bank, the chances of WWE televising the likes of a 300-pound man powerbombing a 77-year-old lady through a table, a disturbing character with homoerotic undertones, or as controversial a catchphrase as “Austin 3:16” seem diminished, as in “no chance in hell,” in the future.
Vince McMahon’s payday represents someone else’s opportunity. Fake fighting need not feel so fake.