It’s officially WrestleMania week, the biggest of the year in professional wrestling. The major events really get going on Friday night with the annual WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. A mix of mainstream-sports hall of fame ceremony, Kennedy Center honors, and crass branding exercise, it’s one of the most anticipated nights of the year in pro wrestling. There’s always controversy, though, in part because self-imposed limits on the number of dead wrestlers inducted each year and marketability being a criteria have kept a number of deserving performers out.
That started to change last year, when WWE added “legacy inductees” to help rid the Hall of its more embarrassing omissions. This year’s legacy class includes, among others, Toots Mondt, a wrestler-turned-promoter who partnered with Vince McMahon’s father and grandfather, as well as Dr. Jerry Graham, the legendary wrestler, star attraction, and real-life cartoon character who was Vince’s all-time favorite wrestler. There is, however, another link between Mondt, Graham, and McMahon, which Deadspin discovered via the response to a Freedom of Information Act Request for the FBI’s records on Mondt: Graham was at the center of an investigation that resulted in the Bureau bugging a conversation between Vince’s father, Vincent James McMahon, and fellow promoter Jim Crockett Sr., the father of Vince Jr.’s promotional rival in the late 1980s.
It’s well-known that Vince Jr. was acquitted on federal conspiracy charges in 1994, the ending to a prosecution he would later allege was orchestrated by Deadspin favorite Phil Mushnick. It’s less well-known, though, that his father, Vincent James McMahon, had his own run-ins with federal authorities. Before WWE expanded nationally in 1984, it was, like all pro wrestling companies in the United States and Canada, a regional operation. By and large, the wrestling business was broken down into geographical territories, as it had been since approximately the 1930s. Each territory had a booking office that supplied the wrestlers, produced the TV show, and maybe controlled the largest towns, with smaller local promoters controlling the venue in each city. For the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the elder McMahon’s company—which he later sold to his son—that slice of the country was the northeast, with Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and central New York as its borders. Like all other territories, Capitol wouldn’t encroach into other promoter’s areas, and would help the other establishment promoters if someone tried.
Concerned about the effect that this kind of monopoly could have on the business, someone calling him or herself “A PROMINENT PERSON IN THE WRESTLING GAME” warned the Department of Justice about what “trimmers” in wrestling were doing in a 1934 letter:
More than two decades later, the Department of Justice decided that what the promoters were doing was, in fact, illegal restraint of trade. After an extensive investigation, in October 1956 the DOJ sued the National Wrestling Alliance, which the key promoters were all members of, alleging a conspiracy to illegally monopolize the professional wrestling business. That same day, a consent decree was entered as a final judgment, with the member promoters agreeing not to do all of the things that got them in trouble in the first place. You can probably guess how long that lasted.
The investigation was reopened after a few years, in part thanks to the complaints of Bill Olivas, a pro wrestler who worked as the Elephant Boy. He had inquired about running a few towns for Jim Crockett Sr., in the Mid-Atlantic states. Crockett’s company, Jim Crockett Promotions —which became WCW after being purchased by Turner Broadcasting decades later—started at the southern border of Capitol. Crockett and business partner Bill Lewis wouldn’t let Olivas in, blocking his efforts at every turn. The disgruntled wrestler turned promoter complained to the Virginia State Athletic Commission, and the FBI soon reopened its investigation into the NWA member promoters.
Hearings were held before the commission on December 15, 1959 and January 6, 1960. According to the FBI’s account, the testimony largely supported Olivas’ assertion that he was being aced out of promoting in Virginia. Crockett, Lewis, McMahon, and Pennsylvania-based promoter Phil Zacko all denied the allegations. “The denials appear to be patently false,” wrote Robert A. Bicks, at the time the assistant attorney general for antitrust. “[B]ut it is desirable to investigate the matter fully before commencing an action for contempt.”
Another witness was Graham, who had offered to help Olivas however he could. He denied knowing anything, though, similar to the tact he took when interviewed by the FBI a few weeks earlier. “[I]t appears that the denial was the result of threats made to Graham by Vince McMahon,” Bicks wrote. How did he know? According to a memo written to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI bugged the waiting room that McMahon and Crockett were using throughout the hearings, and they caught McMahon explicitly detailing how he threatened to blackball Graham:
Graham then left for a European tour. When he was about to head back stateside, McMahon’s television show from Washington, D.C.’s Turner Arena featured the announcement that the good doctor would be returning to the area. Meanwhile, in the middle of all of this drama, Graham had made a new friend: McMahon’s teenage son, 14-year-old Vinnie, who cites the doctor as his all-time favorite professional wrestler.
“Oh, boy. It’s 1959 and I’m looking up at Jerry Graham and he’s lighting cigars with $100 bills,” the current Vince McMahon told Playboy in 2001. “He wore red shoes and rode around Washington in a blood-red 1959 Cadillac, smoking a cigar. He’d run red lights, blowing the horn, and people would scatter. If they didn’t get out of his way he’d cut a promo.” Citing the larger than life wrestler’s drinking, McMahon recalled that his father “wouldn’t let me spend an enormous amount of time with him, but I’d sneak away when I could and go riding with the good doctor.”
Little did Vinnie know that Graham’s social life probably wasn’t the only reason that his dad didn’t want them hanging out together.
You can read the FBI records below.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.