The headquarters of the World Wrestling Federation has the manicured look of a call center. Or the back office of a bank—its black, reflective glass exterior concealing a few hundred third-shifters, examining checks for floating endorsements and miskeyed routing numbers.
It is no Dallas Sportatorium, Fritz Von Erich's legendary wrestling venue, a low-hanging mess of shingles and rickety bleachers, filled from its dirt floor to exposed rafters with beer, popcorn, and hooting. No rival wrestling promoter will ever drive his Corvair to the Federation's Stamford home in the dead of night, heft a jerry can onto the roof, and torch this building.
It is the strange fate of America, in its waning days, that even wrestling—carnival redoubt of grifters, heels, and freaks of every stripe—would wind its way into the colorless confines of a ratty corporate park. Today, World Wrestling Entertainment—now renamed, per a legal settlement with that more genteel WWF, the World Wildlife Fund—trades on the New York Stock Exchange with a market capitalization of over $856 million.
Jim Barnett, one of the most powerful godfathers in the mid-twentieth century "Territorial Era" of wrestling promotion, boasted that he dealt with only three coteries: kings, prime ministers, and dictators. Barnett more typically dealt with sweaty jobbers and Georgia babyfaces, with names like "The Continental Lover" or "Geeto Mongol," but the claim is perhaps not as ridiculous as it appears. Historically, professional wrestling, with its screaming neon lunatics, potbellied big daddies, and tasseled "ring rats," has been considered too absurd to be taken seriously—deprecated by sportswriters and ignored by politicians, its fans derided as low-class marks.
This—the notion that pro wrestling is a fixed, low-rent travesty, undeserving of serious mainstream scrutiny—is the single greatest angle ever sold by the wrestling industry.
Pat O'Connor dropkicks Hans Hermann at Madison Square Garden in 1954.
There are competing theories as to the origin of the term "kayfabe," beyond its provenance in the strange lingo of the carnivals from which American pro wrestling emerged. But as to the meaning, there is no confusion; it is the central axiom of the business. As explained by journalist David "The Masked Man" Shoemaker, kayfabe is "the wrestlers' adherence to the big lie, the insistence that the unreal is real … the abiding dogma of the pro wrestling industry."
And the flip side of kayfabe is that, in an industry where the unreal is real, where Hulk Hogan is a "real American" fighting for the rights of every man, truth wears a mask.
Nothing is more real—and more obscured by the smoke and mirrors of the mat—than a simple fact: the billion dollar spectacle of pro wrestling relies entirely on the ruthless economic, mental, and physical exploitation of its performers. In that world, of lingering physical ailments, screwjob employment contracts, and chugalug drug abuse, Hulk Hogan is a millionaire named Terry Bollea, a favorite of WWF management, poached from a Minneapolis wrestling promotion and transformed into the star of "Hulkamania." In that world, in 1986, Bollea ratted out his fellow wrestlers to crush a nascent unionization drive ahead of Wrestlemania II. In that world, wrestlers are exploited and injured and thrown away—their final contribution to the world, a mortality rate on par with day one of Antietam.
For a fake sport, pro wrestling sure has a lot of real casualties. Its only business model is fear.
Professional wrestling's success was shepherded throughout the mid-twentieth century by the National Wrestling Alliance, a viciously anti-labor cartel comprised of the country's leading promoters. Colluding to control wages, stifle competition, and crush any resistant wrestlers, the NWA survived a federal antitrust investigation to dominate pro wrestling well into the seventies.
Yet it wasn't until recent decades that wrestling would grow unbelievably profitable, just as control of the entire industry came to rest with one corporation. On New Year's Day, 2014, WWE CEO and Chairman Vince McMahon could claim to be a billionaire in almost full control of the industry.
But these machinations are the stuff of rich men. Most wrestlers are not rich men.
A History of Violence
"There is more intrigue connected with professional wrestling than anything else but communism and television," deadpanned New York Daily Mirror sports columnist "Redoubtable" Dan Parker, in 1956. "Wrestling promoters,"Parker continued, "hold their conventions on spiral staircases with coats of mail under their shirts as protection against back-stabbing."
Parker would know. A withering commentator on the sports underworld, two decades earlier, he had published the insider testimony of Jack "Halitosis Kid" Pfefer, in what would be one of the first prominent press exposés of pro wrestling. Pfefer's snitching was mostly limited to exposing that wrestling champions, like "Golden Greek" Jim Londos, had been preselected by the "Trust," composed of promoters Jim Curley, Ray Fabiani, and the legendary Toots Mondt. The winner of a title bout had not bested his opponent; the promoters had determined who would win, based on a consensus of what would be best for business. The revelation that promoters were powerful enough to collude in labor suppression and market manipulation across an entire continent was lost in the maelstrom.
It would be a story Parker would continue to cover, as control of the wrestling world accumulated under the aegis of a few powerful men. In 1948, several regional promoters met in Waterloo, Iowa to form the National Wrestling Alliance. The NWA would dominate the sport for the next three decades, and would, at its height, come to incorporate forty-some-odd "territories" across North America, the Caribbean, East Asia, and the South Pacific.
If the persistent rumors of organized crime's involvement in wrestling are little more than an urban legend, it is because there was no necessity for wiseguys. The NWA was its own mafia. And its duties largely consisted of coercing, putting over, or stretching the one commodity without which the entire enterprise could not function: the wrestlers.
The logic of the NWA was simple. No single promoter could, at that time, exercise control over pro wrestling throughout the United States. The next best option for promoters, eager to make money in a sport both less scrutinized and more popular than boxing, was industry-wide collusion. The formation of the NWA allowed for promoters to mediate any disputes and to demarcate the territories in which each member would be allowed to stage matches—thus, "The Territorial Era."
After carving up the habitable world, the NWA's next step would be to strangle any outside competition in the cradle. Non-NWA promotions, also known as "outlaw promotions," would be ruthlessly stamped out if they attempted to stage wrestling shows in NWA territory. Blockbuster NWA shows would suddenly be staged across town, on the same night, as an outlaw promoter's show. Star wrestlers would agree to appear in an outlaw show, then get bribed to stay home—the outlaw promoter eating the cost of a heavily advertised no-show. Mid-level wrestlers would be threatened with the blacklist for appearing on an outlaw card.
More extreme measures might be taken by unknown parties: municipal coliseums and arenas would suddenly shred contracts, threatening phone calls would be received, and mysterious fires would be kindled. And if all else failed, the NWA could go to the extreme of scorching the earth—"burning" the territory with an overwhelming glut of bad shows, underwhelming scripting, and mediocre wrestling, until business all but evaporated in the area.
This was just how the alliance treated rival promoters. For the wrestlers, it was even nastier.
Labor coercion by management—in almost any industry—need not take the form of a threat. More often than not, management will present a false choice: you can go wrestle as a jobber for one hundred bucks a week for Ed McLemore, out in Texas, or you can not. It's fine if you don't. But you might not get another call. And of course, for those who had something to say about any of this, the NWA had other hardball responses.
Promoters conspired to fix wages around the country and agreed to not pay above the going rate for most wrestlers, with the exception of a few top-drawing stars who might be granted contracts—lest they jump territories or ditch promoters. Intimidating the workforce was imperative for promoters.Big Jim Wilson, an ex-NFL lineman and former wrestler who, after being blackballed in the industry, would attempt to build support for tight governmental regulation of wrestling, would identify the key expense which could meaningfully impact the promoters' profit margin:
Without one MBA among them, wrestlers deduced the most important line item in pro wrestling's accounting spreadsheets—the incredibly low business costs. As a business, the wrestling industry's only operating expenses were monies paid for arena rentals, TV production, and talent—wrestler compensation. With some quick calculations, wrestlers concluded that talent compensation could not possibly constitute more than 15% of wrestling's gross … wrestlers should have realized they were the industry's biggest marks.
It should not be surprising that in an industry controlled by, at most, thirty village Napoleons, in which promoter profits could easily be increased by a wide margin merely by keeping labor expenses as low as possible, that labor suppression would be vigorous and multifaceted.
A 1921 article by sportswriter Al Spink about the aforementioned "Curley Trust" detailed one of the most commonly employed forms of coercion exercised by promoters against wrestlers—the blacklist. His column, profiling "Marin Plestina, greatest wrestler in the world," found that Plestina had been blackballed by Curley from competing in any championship bout, across North America: "Here today is actual evidence of the existence of a wrestling trust that would bar from all wrestling contests…men who are of good standing in the professional wrestling game."
The threat that any wrestler could, if he said or did the wrong thing, be permanently blackballed in his only profession, was usually sufficient to ensure compliance. Wrestlers could complain all they wanted—about getting paid $30 a gig; about paying for "gasoline runs" on far-flung road shows; about being compelled to do "blade jobs," the cutting of one's forehead mid-match to induce bleeding—but for most wrestlers, fear was a gag.
Muhammad Ali and Freddie Blassie, 1976.
Wrestlers regularly complained of irregularities in the gate receipts, counting the number of people in the audience mid-match, then finding half that number recorded in the ledger, as promoters pleaded poverty in cutting the checks. But what could they do? This was not a localized problem; this was the brick and mortar of professional wrestling for most of the century.
A 1973 lawsuit brought by blacklisted wrestler Don "Mr. X" Pruitt exposed other nasty mechanisms of NWA coercion, including the corruption of state athletic commissions, forced "heel turns" meted out to turn would-be champions into despised bad guys, and "stretchings"—the intentional injury of wrestlers in the ring, ordered by promoters in retaliation for some perceived slight.
What self-deception and a non-stop party culture could not palliate for wrestlers, vicious intimidation could.
Mr. McMahon's Neighborhood
One possibly apocryphal story tells of a phone call in the early eighties between Ted Turner and wrestling's éminence grise, WWE CEO and Chairman Vince McMahon. Turner, by then an extremely powerful cable programmer and billionaire, grandly announced, "Vince, I'm in the wrassling business"—to which McMahon is said to have responded, "That's great, Ted—I'm in the entertainment business."
If the call never happened, it may as well have. It was in this era that McMahon, the once-estranged son of a New York-based NWA promoter, would commence a multi-decade war on his erstwhile partners, with the aim of aggressively reshaping the industry into "sports entertainment" with only one promoter at the apex. The explosion of pro wrestling in the eighties, with the advent of "Hulkamania" merchandising and MTV cross-promotion, heralded an astonishing new level of cultural relevancy and profitability for the industry. Those profits came at the direct expense of the wrestlers.
Since the early eighties, the story of pro wrestling has more or less been the story of a burgeoning monopoly, that of McMahon's WWE. There is no such thing as a nice billionaire, and Vince is unexceptional in this regard.
The first chapter in the WWE story is one of what the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter might call "creative destruction," in which McMahon, using the power of cable TV, cartoonish pop aesthetics, and governmental deregulation, co-opted or ruthlessly destroyed his competitors. Perhaps the closest analogy was the contemporaneous destruction of the Mafia's stranglehold over Las Vegas gambling and the rise of the new, glittering Vegas Strip. No more knuckle-dragging goombahs, with all the PR skills of a pot of lampreys; it would be corporate titans like Steve Wynn or Sheldon Adelson in charge, so that everyone could pretend organized vice was a clean trade.
Like the oligarchs of nineties Russia, most of whom entered the post-Soviet era as ambitious, well-connected crooks without much in the way of a conscience, McMahon was well positioned in advance of his campaign to dominate the industry. His father had bequeathed him the most prized NWA territory, New York City, and with it, the glittering crown jewel, Madison Square Garden. McMahon the Elder had been one of the earliest pioneers in the nationwide broadcasting of wrestling, and it was to be with this cudgel that McMahon the Younger would smash his adversaries.
McMahon simply bought out many promotions, such as Georgia Championship Wrestling. By aggressively headhunting star wrestlers, promising jobs to rival promoters, and paying well above market price for ownership stakes in rival outfits, McMahon was able to make significant inroads into regional markets across the country. The advent of Pay-Per-View was ultimately even more deadly. Cable spectaculars like "Wrestlemania" not only generated millions of dollars in revenues for McMahon; broadcast nationally, they trampled across the old dividing lines.
There were some formidable opponents, who might have managed to turn the tide against the WWF had they united. Instead, McMahon won that war, defeating every colorful peacock in his path, from the Carolina's Big Jim Crockett, to Minnesota's Verne Gagne, to, eventually, Atlanta's own Ted Turner.
Since the incorporation of Turner's WCW into the WWE in 2001 and the end of the "Monday Night Wars," there has been no serious competition in the world of pro wrestling. Unsurprisingly, this has not translated into greater prosperity for most wrestlers.
Requiem For An Independent Contractor
The evolution of pro wrestling's public image has put wrestlers in a bind. Vince McMahon is a white-collar sleazeball, but one with a bottomless supply of starch. A "leper with the most fingers," McMahon has a certain oily charm in spite of himself and can honestly say that he has taken bumps alongside his wrestlers. The inequities of the wrestling industry are not as stark as they were in the days of the NWA machine, when McMahon was promoting shows in northern Maine; they have been carefully massaged with all the skill the modern corporation can bring to bear upon a knot in the muscles.
Pro wrestling's greater visibility as cheesy adolescent fantasy tends to mitigate the public backlash the industry should receive each time another wrestler dies young. This very quality of mainstream disrespect has largely served the interests of a blood-soaked business.
If the NWA was a down-home cosa nostra of sorts, a twanging syndicate of hucksters in loud sport coats, McMahon was the slick corporate raider, a gorilla whose suit actually fit. McMahon doesn't speak like a good ole boy; he sounds like Mitt Romney. This is no coincidence. In its aggressive campaign against state regulation, dislocating terms of employment, and poisonous, often fatal working conditions, the WWE is a corporation only a Republican senator could love. "I'm an entrepreneur," McMahon deigned to inform Bob Costas. "I'm what makes this company, my company and this country, go round and round. I take risks."
Vince McMahon announces the formation of the doomed XFL.
Round and round. It's true. Like a true entrepreneur, Vince McMahon does take risks—usually with other people's lives, from lowly, forgotten jobbers like Charles Austin and Darren Drozdov, both of whom were paralyzed wrestling in WWF matches, to bona fide stars like Owen Hart, who died after falling seventy-eight feet out of a stunt harness and into one of Vince's rings. Whether you're low-status "enhancement talent," whose only job is to make the babyfaces look good, or wrestling royalty like the Hart family, all of Vince's wrestlers share one important commonality: they are not employees of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. Rather, they are independent contractors, freely furnishing their services in an ostensibly voluntary arrangement with a corporation.
The orchestration of pro wrestling heavily depends on such apparently minor distinctions, on degrees, and feints. Take, for instance, the piledriver. Executed correctly by two working wrestlers, it is a safe move, a staple of the mat. Executed slightly incorrectly, it can lead to paralysis, death, or an injury of the sort which possibly shortened "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's career.
Another delicate maneuver: is a pro wrestling match a competition, or an exhibition? A seemingly minor distinction—but in the eighties, the money men of pro wrestling broke kayfabe, that code of silence safeguarding the industry's competitive integrity, to all but bellow at state lawmakers that the matches were predetermined, that the whole show was "fake."
Why? The benefits were compelling. If pro wrestling is just "entertainment," there is no need for regulatory scrutiny. By pushing through deregulation, with the help of sleazy right-wing lawyers like Rick Santorum, the WWF wriggled out of paying taxes on their TV broadcasts and sloughed off any oversight by state athletic commissions. In New Jersey, for instance, following the state legislature's 1989 deregulation of the industry, the state "would no longer license wrestlers, promoters, timekeepers and referees," and wrestlers "would no longer be required to take physical examinations before an exhibition"—a fateful dereliction in a business rife with injury.