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Vince McMahon and The WWE Global Machine Part 2

Vince McMahon

Pro Wrestling: A Brief History

The origins of professional wrestling can be traced as far back as 19th century Europe before finding its way across the Atlantic to the carnivals in the United States. But due to an increase in popularity, pro wrestling severed ties with the carnivals and hosted their own shows. It is unclear at what point pro wrestling changed from competitive wrestling to the choreographed theatre that we see today. According to WWE Hall of Famer Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, in a conversation he had with legendary wrestler Lou Thesz:

that the business was a total shoot until about 1925. At a time when Jack Dempsey was knocking everyone out in a couple of rounds and Babe Ruth was smashing the home run record in baseball, the average World Title (wrestling) match often lasted five or six hours and ended in a stalemate. Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, Thesz’s mentor, was impossible to beat, so he eventually worked a title loss just to pump some new blood into the business and make a nice payoff—and that was when it had all changed.”

With the rise in popularity, wrestling promotions sprang up all over the United States and Canada as potential promoters saw an opportunity to line their pockets. To prevent a Wild West scenario, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was founded in 1948. Not to be confused with the 1980s rap group.

The NWA would serve as the governing body of pro wrestling in the United States and it’s neighbour to the north, establishing the territory system. The territory system was dictated by geography. A promoter would run his territory as he saw fit, though under the watchful eyes of the NWA. Promoters would often loan each other athletes to assist with storylines, and introduce fresh faces for their territory.

Professional Wrestlers Territories

Poaching of talent was strictly prohibited, as was encroaching onto another promoters territory. The NWA would often use mafia-style tactics, such as intimidation, violence, and death threats to deter promoters and wrestlers from breaking the rules. While each territory would have its own champion, there would be one World Heavyweight Champion recognised by the NWA, who would travel from territory to territory defending his belt. The presence of the NWA World Heavyweight Champion in a territory was usually a guaranteed sellout. Lou Thesz was the first NWA World Heavyweight Champion.

Most territories were able to secure weekly time slots on local tv networks(television was a burgeoning industry in the 1950s). TV was a goldmine for pro wrestling, who previously had to rely on radio to broadcast their shows. These weekly broadcasts allowed promoters to buildup feuds and storylines and turned wrestlers into household names in their territories. Because wrestling shows were restricted to local networks, that meant fans who lived in other territories were none the wiser on what happened in other territories, allowing wrestlers to take on markedly different personalities or gimmicks when moving to another territory.

Pro wrestling at this time largely revolved around the technical prowess of the performers. This changed with the emergence of Gorgeous George, who recognised the value of the box office aspect of pro wrestling, and the lure and appeal that came with being on tv. Gorgeous George wore a flamboyant gown to the ring, used entrance music, placed an emphasis on theatrics, cutting promos, and had a look on his face that said: “you are all beneath me”.

Fans flocked, in large numbers, to arenas just to ridicule Gorgeous George, oblivious to the fact they were doing exactly what he wanted them to do. So long as they bought tickets to the show, they could boo him as much as they wanted. Muhammad Ali has admitted that Gorgeous George was an inspiration for him on self-promotion.

Gorgeous George

Fans flocked, in large numbers, to arenas just to ridicule Gorgeous George, oblivious to the fact they were doing exactly what he wanted them to do. So long as they bought tickets to the show, they could boo him as much as they wanted. Muhammad Ali has admitted that Gorgeous George was an inspiration for him on self-promotion.

In 1960 the NWA faced dissension amongst its ranks from the Minneapolis territory for its reluctance to make Verne Gagne the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. Gagne and his allies convinced several territories to leave the NWA and form a new organisation, the American Wrestling Association (AWA). Gagne became the first AWA Heavyweight Champion.

WWE’s origins can be traced back to the Northeastern territory, which covered the commercially lucrative hubs of New York City and Washington DC. The first show was promoted by Capitol Wrestling Corporation (CWC). CWC operated its territory under the NWA umbrella. I hope you’re able to keep up with these acronyms. There is conflicting information about the founder of CWC. Some believe it is Jess McMahon – grandfather of the current WWE owner. While others say it’s Vince McMahon Sr. – Jess’s son – and the father of the current owner.

CWC left the NWA in 1961, due to a dispute, and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). But rejoined in 1970, and continued to use the WWWF name. The name was later shortened to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Bruno Sammartino was the marquee wrestler in WWF and is recognised by the WWE today as having the longest WWE Championship reign in their history at 2803 consecutive days. In the instant gratification world of today, that is a record that will never be broken.

WWE

By the early 1980s, the wrestling business was confronted with a crisis that would forever alter the industry. The territories had benefited from the use of technology(tv) in the past. But now technology would do a full heel turn and work against them. Fans were now able to swap video cassettes(remember those) with fans from other territories, where the character and storyline inconsistencies were glaringly obvious.

The novelty of seeing the NWA World Champion on a regular basis on their screens meant the prestige of seeing the main man in their territory was wearing off. This had a negative effect on tv ratings and ticket sales.

This unstable situation allowed Vince McMahon to seize his opportunity to begin building the empire we know today. We will take a look at the critical events that led to the fall of the NWA, and AWA. How Vince was nearly out of business by Ted Turner, and the rise of the WWE to the monster it is today. And why Vince McMahon is such a polarising character.

Vince Buys WWF From His Dad

Vince McMahon

Vince McMahon grew up in the business. His father Vince McMahon Sr owned CWC and was the promoter of WWF and its predecessor WWWF. His grandfather Jess McMahon was also a promoter. Vince worked for his father until he started his own company, Titan Sports Inc. Under Titan Sports, Vince acquired CWC and it’s subsidiary WWF from his father in 1982, whose health was now deteriorating. McMahon immediately made his intention clear that he would withdraw the WWF from the NWA.

He went full Viking, raiding other territories for their talent, and pushed for the WWF to be televised nationally, putting him on a collision course with territories and promoters across the country. Ragnar Lothbrok would have been proud. Vince targeted wrestlers with impressive physiques, and excellent microphone skills(the gift of the gab). Wrestlers were given over the top gimmicks, the more outrageous the better. For additional revenue, McMahon would also sell videotapes of WWF matches in other territories using his video distribution company, Coliseum Videos. Despite being warned by his father that “he would wind up at the bottom of a river” Vince McMahon wasn’t deterred, recalling in an interview:

“In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge. Each little lord respected the rights of his neighbouring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed. There were maybe 30 of these tiny kingdoms in the U.S. and if I hadn’t bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them, fragmented and struggling. I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords.”

With poor ticket sales and dipping tv ratings, many territories were already experiencing financial difficulties and were powerless from stopping the WWF poaching their best wrestlers. One by one, territories in both the NWA and AWA began falling to the WWF. One of McMahon’s most high profile acquisitions was Georgia Championship Wrestling(GCW) due to its lucrative Saturday night time slot. GCW was broadcast on Turner Broadcasting Systems(TBS), which was owned by Ted Turner. Turner was also the owner of 24-hour news outlet CNN. It didn’t take long for the two men to get into a tiff over the style of the content.

Ted Turner wasn’t the only one unhappy with the WWF’s cartoonish-like characters, and over the top storylines, which differed sharply to what GCW fans were accustomed to. TV ratings gradually decreased, and McMahon, under pressure from Turner, sold the Saturday night time slot on TBS, but not GCW, to Jim Crockett Jr. This would not be the end of the McMahon/Turner feud.

NWA Starrcade 1983

WWE

Desperate to stop the growing influence of the WWF, Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) had begun acquiring territories and consolidated them under a single umbrella. Jim Crockett Jr, under the banner of the NWA, organised the first-ever pro wrestling pay-per-view, Starrcade. The main event was a steel cage match, for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, between two of the biggest names in the territory system, defending champion Harley Race and Ric Flair.

Pay-per-view is a tv or web service in the United States where customers make a once-off payment to view a live event. Today, the most popular pay-per-view sales are Boxing, MMA, and Pro Wrestling. The storyline buildup to the event was top drawer. Harley Race, concerned about the threat that Flair offered for his championship, put out a $50 000 bounty for anyone that could take Flair out of commission. WWE would use a similar angle twenty years later when Triple H placed a $100 000 bounty on Goldberg’s head.

The event was a success, but instead of delivering a hammer blow to Vince McMahon and the WWF, it proved to be an inspiration. It opened up a new revenue stream for wrestling promoters, especially at a time when Vince McMahon was stretched financially. Less than 18 months later, WWF would launch their very first pay-per-view. For The Nature Boy Ric Flair, Starrcade would be the brand that would transform him from a regional star to a national icon.

Hulk Hogan Leaves AWA

Hulk Hogan (real name, Terry Bollea) was a mid-level heel in the WWF when he had a falling out with Vince McMahon Sr over being cast as ‘Thunderlips’ in the blockbuster film, Rocky 3. McMahon Sr believed that wrestlers should stick to their day jobs, and didn’t want his athletes involved in movies. This dispute led to Hogan’s departure from WWWF, after which he signed with Verne Gagne and AWA. Hogan was booked as a heel in AWA, but the theatrical release of Rocky 3 and the resulting surge in popularity necessitated a face turn. With the newfound fame, a great physique, roaring charisma, and that blonde mop, Gagne realised he had a superstar on his hands, and booked Hogan in a feud with AWA Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel. But Gagne believed Hogan’s push for the title would be more lucrative than an actual title win. The rationale being fans would keep turning up every week in anticipation of the Hulkster finally being crowned AWA Heavyweight Champion.

History of the WWE

This isn’t a bad tactic, in fact throughout pro wrestling history promoters have done this, with the intent of a huge payday down the line. Most recently, Vince McMahon did storylines for Daniel Bryan, and Kofi Kingston, in which they had glorious failures in trying to win the WWE Championship. Before finally achieving success in huge WrestleMania payoffs. But Gagne would take this simple idea to extreme lengths. In a series of hard-fought matches, Bockwinkel squeaked past Hogan. On a couple of occasions, Hogan actually pinned Bockwinkel, but each time the decision was reversed on a technicality. According to some reports, there was almost a riot one night, as furious fans scarcely believed what they had just witnessed.

Gagne drew out this process, but soon the AWA fans grew tired of waiting, and attendances begin to plummet. Even worse, Hogan ran out of patience. So when Vince McMahon made an offer to Hogan to return to WWF, Hogan duly accepted. The NWA had Ric Flair, and now the WWF had Hulk Hogan. AWA had Nick Bockwinkel, but fans had grown to despise him during the Hogan feud. And to make matters worse, Bockwinkel’s manager, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenen, would follow Hogan and join the McMahon revolution.

McMahon, unlike his father, saw the potential for mainstream success Hogan could bring to the WWF. Hogan left AWA in December 1983, and became WWF Champion a month later after dethroning The Iron Sheik, and went on to be the centrepiece of McMahon’s growing empire. Hulkamania was born. Verne Gagne and the AWA would never fully recover from Hogan’s departure. Talk about a what if.

In the next part of this series, we start with Wrestlemania!

Sizwe Luthayi

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