Given what we know about the staged or "worked" nature of professional wrestling, bodies would seem to be of little significance. If the wrestler Big Show, who sometimes weighs upwards of 400 pounds, could be ordered by his employer to “put over” (i.e., lose to) Daniel Bryan, 190 pounds soaking wet, why should physical appearances matter at all?
And yet, since the early heyday of promoter-booked wrestling in the 1920s, bodies have been even more important than the actual abilities that those bodies possess. Why else would someone like Wayne “Big” Munn, a towering 6’6” pro footballer who couldn’t wrestle a lick, be handed a word title belt in 1925 by promoter Toots Mondt? This is one of the most fascinating of wrestling’s many multi-layered ironies: the way things seem (as in the shape and composition of a competitor’s body) is not how these things are, since a man the size of “Big” Munn or the Big Show could conceivably have no wrestling skill at all. And yet the way things seem often determines how they are, as in the case of acromegalic behemoth Andre the Giant’s extraordinary popularity with the fans: how could a man his size ever lose to anyone, most would think.
Few have understood this perverse logic quite like second-generation wrestling impresario Vincent K. McMahon, who seized upon the exploding popularity of bodybuilding at the tail end of the 1970s to launch a promotion in which style has almost always trumped substance. McMahon, who played a season or two of football at East Carolina University and grew up admiring the fulsome male figure of Steve Reeves, had engaged in bodybuilding-style weight training since the early 1970s. The success of a handful of unskilled bodybuilder types—primarily the slow-moving, well-tanned crowd pleaser “Polish Power” Ivan Putski and sweet-talking villain “Superstar” Billy Graham—in his father’s version of the WWF convinced McMahon that future viewers would doubtless share this preference for huge, tight, and extremely vascular bodies that were, like his own, enhanced by the various testosterone cocktails developed in pharmaceutical laboratories around the world. “In our business,” he would later tell the Joe Weider publication Muscle and Fitness, “you have to be larger than life, but not just physically—it’s the psychology of it, too.”
Of course, the deployment of these supersized heroes would itself be veiled by numerous overlapping deceits. Terry “Hulk” Hogan, a bronze-hued giant of partial Puerto Rican descent, would serve as McMahon’s standard-bearer throughout the 1980s, generating enormous pay-per-view buy-rates while championing a lifestyle that consisted of such "demandments" (the "Hulkster's" term, not mine) as vitamin-taking, prayer-saying, and regular exercise. Hogan, of course, was at this same time under strict orders to remain “juiced” on whatever performance-enhancing cocktails were prescribed by George Zahorian, a Pennsylvania-based physician and one of the coterie of friendly “croakers” (i.e., prescription-writing doctors) who served at McMahon’s pleasure.
McMahon’s obsession with cartoonish theatrics and muscular size overshadowed the quality of the in-ring performance, and even legitimate grapplers such as the bulldog-jowled former National Wrestling Alliance champion Harley Race came to be saddled with ludicrous gimmicks and ring outfits. Ken Patera, a 1972 Olympian and putative “World’s Strongest Man” who once remarked that the outcome of a weightlifting exhibition would turn on “whoever’s steroids were better,” found himself put off by McMahon’s behaviors and decided to retire in late-1988 after McMahon squeezed his thigh in the locker room and told him he had better start “hitting the roids” again.
The WWF brand, saddled as it was with a roster of lumbering musclemen, reached its nadir during the early-1990s, at which point McMahon found himself enmeshed in the federal trial of George Zahorian. Zahorian stood accused of distributing the steroids and other performance enhancers that had, owing to the legislative legerdemain of Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, recently been listed as controlled substances. The trial spiraled out of control, with Zahorian’s legal team leaking the names of various WWF competitors who were told to “use [steroids] or they don’t participate." Among these names was Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, two of the federation’s most noteworthy performers.
McMahon, who was also invested in a professional bodybuilding federation that he’d founded to compete with Joe Weider’s International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB), weathered the storm by imposing mandatory steroid testing for his performers (though not for himself, of course—as he told a House investigative committee years later, he wasn’t the talent) and beginning to promote smaller, leaner grapplers such as Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. But although this period in the federation’s history, which ran from roughly 1993 to 1996, produced many classic matches, it saw the WWF lose ground to the increasingly edgy World Championship Wrestling (WCW) outfit owned by billionaire Ted Turner and operated by innovative general manager Eric Bischoff.
It was at this juncture that McMahon made another very body-conscious choice: instead of merely steroid-enhanced bodies, he’d give them phantasmagoric bodies. Drawing on lessons learned from the modest success of the small Eastern Pennsylvania/New Jersey-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), McMahon began building his federation around the premise, championed in years past by proto-hardcore Southern promoters like Eddie Graham and Joe Blanchard, that “matches had to go red before they went green.” To this end, McMahon spotlighted oft-injured risk-takers (Mick “Mankind/Cactus Jack/Dude Love” Foley, the Hardy Boys, the Dudley Boys), extraordinary racial and ethnic caricatures (a “Godfather” who arrived at the ring accompanied by his “Hos” and served in the faux-African-American nationalist organization known as “the Nation of Domination”), and a seemingly endless array of anonymous female “Diva” performers, nearly all of whom conformed—if the numerous sexual harassment allegations are to be believed—to McMahon’s exacting standards of beauty.
Owing to the terrible press he’d received throughout a career spent profiting from the pretend-yet-real violence inflicted on bodies that were neither insured nor unionized and hoping to capitalize on the tremendous “heat” (i.e., fan dislike) that he’d earned by stripping Bret Hart of his world title, McMahon also decided that there was considerable money to be made by putting his own body on the line. Over the course of a half-decade run as the WWF’s top heels, McMahon and his son Shane would take some of the nastiest “bumps” (i.e., feigned falls designed to simulate injury, and which often result in actual injury) in the federation’s history. They would do so while giving the WWF/WWE’s largely working-class demographic the ultimate “heel”: the seemingly untouchable owner, who wielded the power of life and death over the bodies of his employees.
Tabloid columnists like Dave Meltzer and Wade Keller helped shift the attention of serious wrestling fans from the “worked” storylines that realism-obsessed promoters such as Bill Watts and Verne Gagne insisted on providing them with to the backstage maneuverings that precipitated title changes, firings, and other personnel moves. Although it’s unclear how much impact a low-circulation, self-published journal such as Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter had on the broader population of “marks” (i.e., fans who believe that wrestling outcomes aren’t predetermined), it certainly influenced many of the sports’ decision-makers during the 1980s and 1990s. All of them, that is, except Vince McMahon.
The difference between “kayfabe” and openly “worked” wrestling had never mattered much to McMahon. He never met a midget, obese hillbilly, or ex-luchador in a chicken suit he wouldn’t book on his pay-per-view card. In the opinions of former promoters Bill Watts and Larry Matysik, the WWF matches were always the worst in the country. With the exception of amateur star Bob Backlund, who had six-year run as champion in the late-1970s, there was no pretense of “real” wrestling made in most WWF main events: Ivan Putski-versus-Jesse Ventura arm wrestling matches, Bruno Sammartino bearhugs, and “Superstar” Billy Graham bodybuilding pose-downs were the order of the day. And even though McMahon may have ordered “Dr. D” David Schultz to rough up investigative reporter John Stossel in 1984 when Stossel was attempting to expose the business, he had no problem admitting in 1989 that professional wrestling was mere “entertainment” in order to obviate the ongoing need to pay the state athletic commissions that had once constituted an essential part of the “kayfabe” sham.
In a statement to the New Jersey Senate, which was contemplating whether to remove professional wrestling from the purview of its athletic commission, the WWF declared that it was in the business of producing “an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.”
Mind you, McMahon was likely not happy to see David Meltzer sitting across from him on a 1992 episode of The Phil Donahue Show, listening to Meltzer and one of his colleagues level accusations about McMahon’s role in the Zahorian steroid contretemps as well as Pat Patterson’s backstage sexual harassment of male midget wrestlers. But he maintained his composure during the show, rebutting Meltzer’s charges while sticking to a handful of talking points—a kind of pressure under fire honed, no doubt, over the course of a lifetime spent on the receiving end of lawsuits and criminal investigations. Thus, when WCW head booker Eric Bischoff managed to increase his promotion’s ratings in the mid-1990s by playing into the hands of these tabloid writers, hiring old and unproductive WWF wrestlers just to bolster “smark” (i.e., smartened-up fan, as in the case of fans who read Meltzer’s newsletter) interest, McMahon stayed the course. While Bischoff was hiring washed-up grapplers to headline his cards, McMahon offered the fans something different: vulgar bloodbaths, plenty of t & a, and relative unknowns who, as with Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage before them, became stars in principal part because McMahon gave them the opportunity to shine.
And eventually McMahon’s vision of the product—in his words, a “middle-class” vision, a vision that “was all about Peoria”—would prevail in the so-called “Monday Night Wars” of 1996-2001 exactly as it had during the WWF’s national expansion in the 1980s. And make no mistake about it: at base, McMahon was the WWF. During this period, he was the federation’s chief “heel.” “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were important actors in this “Attitude Era” drama, but McMahon was its author. So we come again to noted wrestling fan Roland Barthes, who’d famously observed, “We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." “The reader,” in Barthes’ opinion, “is the space on which all quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost…[and] this destination cannot be personal.”
The WWF, which now has a sizeable creative team and a support staff, doesn’t really belong to the “readers” of the “texts” that it produces. Professional wrestling in its postmodern form, once a fragmented and highly diverse activity with dozens of regional variants and hundreds of hometown heroes, is now the exclusive property of a single billionaire author. It remains an idiosyncratic one-family operation, capable of making moves ranging from the brilliant, such as hiring writers to tweet in-character for the wrestlers on Twitter (thus confusing even those Meltzer and Keller-informed “smarks” who look to the Internet for reliable information), to the ridiculous, as when McMahon served as the central character in the 2001-2008 Kiss My Ass Club storyline wherein various employees were made to kiss his bare or thong-clad rear end in order to save their jobs.
Yet this storyline, like the incomplete, puffery-ridden McMahon documentary his company produced, is the key to understanding the central joke at the heart of professional wrestling. At one time, promoters paid men to pretend to fight, audiences paid to watch these putative combatants compete in what most assumed were real matches, and the compensated parties laughed all the way to the bank, with the promoters laughing the loudest. The Kiss My Ass Club allows us to see how McMahon has modified this paradigm. In it, wrestlers (who are acting) are forced to watch as McMahon (also acting) drops his pants in a slow, sexual way, usually shaking his hips and buttocks and performing “tricks” with his ass, such as flexing it to demonstrate the impeccable conditioning of his glutes and hamstrings. The kisses ranged from extremely deep—the talented English wrestler William Regal planted his lips directly between McMahon’s buttocks—to furtive and violent, as when the midget Hornswaggle (playing a leprechaun-outfitted character) bit McMahon on the ass after McMahon had joked about his own tan lines and impressive flatulence.
This is, I assume, meant to be both silly, because we’re forced to watch as muscular men kiss another muscular man’s bare ass, and also infuriating, since the almighty “boss,” that Armani suit-clad embodiment of capital, is humiliating his workers in front of his largely working-class audience—the people from “Peoria” whom he’s claimed to understand so well. We fans are left to wait for McMahon to receive his cosmic comeuppance, with what Roland Barthes described as the “spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” playing out to its obvious and necessary conclusion.
Yet we must also consider the following: the person whose ass is being kissed is actual WWE CEO Vince McMahon, acting as storyline WWE CEO Vince McMahon, and the people kissing his ass are his actual employees, acting as his storyline employees. These men, non-union contract workers who either have to purchase their own health insurance or else have none at all, are kissing their boss’ ass to preserve their livelihood (and, with the exception of the Ring of Honor, Impact, and Japanese promotions, this boss is a market monopsonist: he’s the only buyer around for whatever services you are selling). And even when whatever latter-day variant of the Kiss My Ass Club that’s currently running finally terminates and McMahon and his kids Shane and Stephanie are humiliated by being made to kiss asses of their own (usually the ass of an extremely obese wrestler kept on the roster for such purposes), we reward them in ratings or ticket sales or WWE Network subscription fees for the right to witness said humiliations.
McMahon, though occasionally bloodied and sometimes even seriously injured, has therefore succeeded in having the last word on this matter. Perhaps eating his scripted words amounts to some form of “Justice” and vindication in Barthes’ sense, but in a business where everything is a “work,” where nothing is as it seems—and where this is known now to be the case, where McMahon has himself gone on the record as declaring that it is a “work”—what could be more satisfying than to profit through one’s one own stage-managed public scourging? In the end, the joke is on everyone but Vince McMahon, and I’m sure that, should he deign to consider the matter at all, he would find it riotously funny.