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  1. The Weekend Essay
15 July 2023

Everything is wrestling

American public life is an extension of the nation’s most sordid sport.

By David Roth

When Vince McMahon announced that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) would merge with the entertainment colossus Endeavor, he looked different. Admittedly, McMahon has always looked different – even before he spent decades growing a professional wrestling promotion from a family business into a luridly disreputable billion-dollar entertainment powerhouse, McMahon had the uncannily triangular torso of a committed bodybuilder and a cartoonishly rubbery mien that made him look, somehow, as if he was wearing a Vince McMahon mask.

This was back in April; McMahon, 77, had stepped down as chairman and CEO of the company the previous summer after the Wall Street Journal claimed he was responsible for $19.6m in improperly recorded payments. The bulk of that was alleged to be hush-money paid to four women – a former WWE wrestler, a former WWE contractor, a former WWE manager and a former WWE paralegal – over the course of 16 years. In March this year, McMahon reportedly paid $17.4m back to WWE to cover costs related to a board investigation into his alleged misconduct.

It was also revealed last autumn that the board’s investigation found $5m had been directed to the controversial charity of a WWE performer for appearances in 2007 and 2009 – which, because McMahon failed to disclose the sum even though it benefited the company, an independent commission believed might have violated federal securities laws. That performer was Donald Trump. (A WWE attorney acknowledged that the payments were related to Trump’s appearance but denied extra was paid because of the event’s success.) McMahon’s wife, Linda, would later serve as the head of the Small Business Administration during Trump’s presidency.

Before we get to McMahon’s new look, though – how do the last two paragraphs make you feel? If you have followed American politics or professional wrestling, or noticed the extent to which American public life has taken on the greasily predatory vibe of a haunted amusement fair, it is unlikely that any of it is surprising.

The scuzz is utterly off-the-peg, in its ugliness and shopworn particulars: in the allegations for which the hush money was claimed to have been paid, McMahon sent unsolicited nudes and made punitive demotions and cheesy coercions; but also the oafish attempt to keep private the payment for the most public appearances imaginable, the first of which culminated in Trump shaving McMahon’s head in the middle of a wrestling ring before a large television audience in a climax to the story arc The Battle of the Billionaires. That those decades of contentiousness did not result in anything that could be described as “consequences” for any of the parties involved feels familiar, too. So familiar that by now the only response I can really muster after typing it out is a sort of wrung-out exhaustion.

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Some vital things have slipped out of joint in American public life, and as a result everything feels and looks entirely too much like everything else. The strange and stilted and self-serving imaginations of the extravagantly rich and extravagantly unaccountable people who own more and more of everything, have come to define the limits of the cultural imagination. Professional wrestling, one of America’s most beloved popular performance pastimes, is alive and well in the sense that a great many people care about it, and also in the sense that it is practiced and consumed in so many different ways, in shows thrown in rented halls and high school gyms and suburban backyards and, at the highest levels, sold-out sporting arenas.

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It has been the work of Vince McMahon’s life to take this idiosyncratic American thing, wrestling, and make it not just conform more closely to his vision of what it should be, but make it more like him. Whether it was breaking or assimilating rival wrestling promotions or nascent attempts by his workforce to unionise, McMahon has won and won and won – and his promotion both grew and shrunk to reflect those victories. 

Long before he wrote himself into the show as “Mr McMahon” – an amoral, libidinous, ultra-hissable boss figure – McMahon presided over a product that reflected and amplified his executive preferences and personal hang-ups. It was sexist and jingoistic and culturally backwards in the way that wrestling has always been, but also in the ways that McMahon himself was. It was all about bringing those whims to life on television.

It is tempting to mention, as a sort of parallel, the way that the Republican Party neglected even to put forward a policy platform in the 2020 presidential election, and instead affirmed that the party “has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda”, but this isn’t quite that. McMahon has always thought wrestling was best when pharmaceutically enhanced, incongruously wet-looking behemoths – the WWE star Bret Hart described McMahon’s ideal look as “a human basketball” – screamed and scowled and bumped into each other. For all the obvious resonances he and Trump share, making a big wrestling promotion boring is not in the same league as anything Trump did as president. But the most important thing, in both cases, was that the boss be seen as the boss – masterful, unaccountable, forever and ever in charge.

Anyway, when McMahon went on TV to announce the merger, which brought together America’s foremost concerns in the real (UFC) and less-real (WWE) combat sports into one publicly traded company managed by Endeavor, his hair was notably darker, his skin worryingly ruddy and taut, and he wore a thin moustache. Imagine if the comic-book artist Rob Liefeld had been tasked with drawing the filmmaker John Waters, or imagine a CGI-rendered and disconcertingly buff version of the type of villain that used to tie women to train tracks in silent films. Asked on CNBC whether he would be more involved with the promotion “on the creative side” going forwards, McMahon said “yes and no. On a higher level, yes. But in the weeds, which I always loved to get in the weeds in the past, no. Can’t do that.”

Even more so than the makeover, the last line stuck out. Vince McMahon would never use the words “can’t do that” about himself and mean it. As much or more than anyone but Trump himself, McMahon has lived his very large and very public life as if those words could never apply to him. But, as much or more than anyone but Trump himself, McMahon has also lived secure in the belief that the people watching would not care about what he said and what he did, or what he insisted was real and the very different thing that was really real. You had to know how to watch him, which is to say that you had to decode what was real and what was a work, or just decide what you wanted to be true and then decide to believe it.

This is not just “kayfabe”, the wrestling jargon that defines the borderlands between wrestling’s storyline and what existed outside of it. This self-guided subjectivity is, according to Abraham Josephine Riesman, the author of the scabrous, comprehensive and brilliantly readable biography Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America (2023), neo-kayfabe. “It says that pro wrestling, with all its spectacle, is a lie – but that the lie encodes a deeper truth, discernible to those few who know how to look beyond what’s in front of them. To those fans adept in reading the signs, another narrative emerges, and another beyond that. Suddenly, the pleasure of watching a match has less to do with who wins than with the excitement of decoding it.”

The slang that wrestling insiders use to describe fans that believed wrestling was real is “mark”. The ones that know it is all fake but believe they can tell what aspects of it are secretly real are “smart marks”. Riesman believes that wrestling fans, who were smugly derided for their gullibility before and after pro wrestling acknowledged that it was scripted, were never quite as mark-heavy a bunch as they had been made out to be. “If you interview people who were actual wrestling fans back then – which I did – a large portion of them will tell you: ‘Oh, I knew it was fake,’” Riesman said in an interview with the Heat Death newsletter. “‘But I loved believing in it.’” How exhausted are you feeling now?

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McMahon’s outsized life story has been told many times, most frequently by McMahon himself, but also in histories like Bill Hanstock’s highly enjoyable We Promised You a Great Main Event (2020). McMahon, who didn’t meet his biological father until he was 12 years old, had a sad early life marked by abuse: physically, at the hands of a brutish stepfather named Leo Lupton; and, McMahon insinuated to Playboy in 2001, sexually at the hands of a troubled mother from whom he remained estranged until late in her life. After his father, Vincent McMahon Sr, welcomed his son first into his large and loving family and then the regional pro wrestling promotion that was the family’s business, the former Vincent Lupton got to work inventing first the man and then the character he would become. In re-reporting McMahon’s legend, Riesman reveals that its Dickensian broad strokes are true, but finds that much of the rowdier colour was McMahon’s invention: where McMahon has described the young Vinnie Lupton as an instigator who brawled with marines from a local military base, the peers that Riesman speaks to remember him merely as part of a group of “wannabes” and a good dancer.

Much of the pleasure of Riesman’s book lies in the little details her reporting turns up – the former classmate who is astonished to learn that the childhood friend who abruptly left town had grown up to be the Vincent McMahon he’d seen on TV; the makeshift wrestling shows he put on at his military school, in which he wrestled as Ape Man McMahon; the mortician who presided over the seven-hour cremation of the 235-kilogram WWE legend André “the Giant” Roussimoff, at a rural North Carolina funeral home that was coincidentally located within walking distance of the hospital in which Vinnie Lupton was born. 

Riesman also writes sensitively about the variously damaged and brilliant wrestlers who are both the labour and the product of McMahon’s promotion, from the thoughtful and tragic Bret Hart to the vile Ultimate Warrior. Riesman’s attention to detail, and her real and evident affection for this strange and outré form of theatre and the people who love it and perform it, grounds a book that is otherwise about a mostly unpleasant man’s shameless and seemingly irresistible rise in something much more human and affirmative.

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Like Trump – like many other notable Americans, actually – McMahon is a salesman who is either too jealous or too ambitious to sell any product beyond himself. Every wrestling storyline, every relationship is pulled back to the density of his vanity, the bottomless churn of his appetite, and his metastatic desire not just to control and create the narrative but dominate everyone he traps within it; this is true both in the ring and outside of it, to the point where it seems almost pointless to acknowledge a distinction between the two.

“Kayfabe eats everything,” Riesman writes, and the recurring theme of Ringmaster is McMahon’s singular way of muscling out everything else, in wrestling and elsewhere. Until the emergence of Trumpism as a political force, all public evidence suggested that professional wrestling – not movies, not American football (McMahon tried twice to get involved), not competitive bodybuilding – was the only thing in which Americans wanted to have That Vince McMahon Feeling. 

Now, when US politics and its culture are abstracted and brutal to roughly the same degree, and with civic participation fractured into something that is much more like fandom than anything empowering or ennobling, that feeling is everywhere you look in America.

Riesman’s book, which was a best-seller in the US, ends in 1999, with the infamous revelation that capped a long-running feud storyline. McMahon and champion Stone Cold Steve Austin, as well as McMahon’s family – his wife, son and daughter all became part of WWE’s sprawling soap opera, as themselves – had been tormented by a hooded figure known as the Greater Power. On the night that the Greater Power’s identity was to be revealed, at a show in Boston, McMahon’s son Shane took the mic. “The Greater Power is omniscient,” he intoned. “The Greater Power is cold and calculated, and a mastermind at screwing with people’s minds… He knows our fears, he knows our strengths, and our weaknesses – and exploits those fears, strengths and weaknesses for the betterment of his Corporate Ministry and his own personal amusement.” It didn’t really make narrative sense, given the events that had preceded it in the storyline, when the figure flung back the hood of his cloak to reveal that the Greater Power had been McMahon all along; it was, given the Greater Power’s sexualised menacing of McMahon’s daughter, Stephanie, also wildly perverse.

“No other reveal would be as confounding, as nonsensical, as emotionally devastating for the fans,” Riesman writes, as the revelation that “all this time Mr McMahon was merely playing a victim – in order to manipulate the audience’s emotions and expectations”. But it could not have been any other way; every story, eventually, had to belong to him. Riesman leaves McMahon there, gloating amid the “asshole” chants of the fans in the seats. So: plenty of room for a sequel.

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