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Absolute Power

Vince Ex Machina

How WWE Chairman Vince McMahon Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace His Real-Life Role

In the months leading up to SummerSlam 1995, Intercontinental champ Shawn Michaels was feuding with his former bodyguard, Sycho Sid (a.k.a. Sid Vicious, a.k.a. Sid Justice). But when the big event arrived, their only interactions were some odd shots of Sid watching a television monitor backstage as Michaels fought Razor Ramon (now more commonly, and infamously, known as Scott Hall) in an epic ladder match. Shawn and Sid had been scheduled to fight, but just weeks before SummerSlam, interim WWF president Gorilla Monsoon announced that he was changing the card to “give the fans what they really wanted to see” — a rematch of the ladder match the two had fought at WrestleMania X.

Because the match has since become an industry benchmark, it’s often forgotten how odd it was. There was no backstory and a meager buildup to the Michaels-Hall rematch. Both of them were babyfaces, and a pay-per-view bout between two good guys in which neither turns heel was unheard of in those days. The announcers — WWF owner Vince McMahon and former Fabulous Freebird Michael P.S. Hayes (who was then going under the inane moniker of Dok Hendrix) — strained to help viewers understand the participants’ “competitive spirits” and “mean streaks” and whatever else would justify their in-ring sadism.

Those early ladder matches were truly shocking. There had been bullrope matches and chain matches and all sorts of barroom plunder, but a ladder seemed more like machinery than weaponry. The first ladder match in WWF history was a rarely seen contest between Michaels and Bret Hart in 1992; it was a good match by any standard, but the presence of the ladder was more like ominous window dressing than a tool for committing violence. The second ladder match, when Michaels faced Hall two years later at WrestleMania X, was an entirely different animal. There was a blatant disregard for safety that had rarely been seen in mainstream wrestling. There was an eerie disconnect between McMahon’s milquetoast explanations — “The ladder, as I stated, can be used against your opponent” — and the viciousness of the action. About five minutes in, there’s a sequence in which Razor pantses Michaels as he climbs the ladder, and Michaels unloads a reciprocal elbow drop with his ass still hanging out, then climbs back up and splashes Hall from an ungodly height. At that moment, everything we thought we knew about a wrestling match changed. The announcers’ put-on shock seemed totally sincere for once, and the crowd was at an incredible fever pitch. When Shawn later picked up the ladder and Vince rhetorically asked, “Will he use it to climb or will he use it as an offensive weapon again?” one could almost detect a preference for the former in McMahon’s voice. Through athletic prowess and physical disregard, Michaels and Hall weren’t just revolutionizing the ladder match — they were reinventing the sport.

When the rematch was announced a year and a half later, it might not have made any sense, story line–wise, but the expectations were high, larded by the memory of the first bout and by Monsoon’s forceful matchmaking. There are a couple of moments in the rematch when only sheer luck saved Michaels from catastrophic injury. It was an incredible match, and if the crowd was less afire, it was because by then the wrestling fan base had caught up to the product. They were ready to fully appreciate what Michaels and Hall were serving up. It’s fair to say that the rematch marked the beginning of a modern wrestling era in a way that the first match didn’t; it was the mainstream debut of workrate fetishism — the notion that in-ring storytelling and athletic performance trump all else — and the beginning of the “holy shit” era of wrestling daredevilry. Great though it was, their first match had been a wild incidental; this rematch was actually what the fans really wanted.

But why did WWF insert that match on the card at the 11th hour? If it was what the fans wanted, why not build up to it organically?

Reasons for the switch are varied. Many revolve around Sid’s always-tenuous employment status with the company, but I think it’s more likely that the WWF brass took a look at the other top matches on the card — Diesel versus King Mabel, Bret Hart versus Isaac Yankem,1 Undertaker versus Kama — and realized that they needed a match with two good technical wrestlers or else the show would end an hour early. Sure, Hart could pull a decent match out of a paraplegic,2 but these were rather fallow days for WWF, and you needed look no further than the Diesel-Mabel main event to see how bad things were going to get before they got better. It was the sort of match that presumed to answer the age-old question of what happens when an unresponsive crowd meets two immovable objects.

Regardless of the specific reasoning, nobody doubts how the decision was made: Vince McMahon pulled the strings. McMahon owns the company, he’s the godfather of the modern wrestling world, and he’s the prime mover in all things related to the WWF/E product. This is as true today as it was in 1995. The conventional wisdom about Vince — based almost entirely on Internet speculation and the complaints of disgruntled ex-employees — is that he’s a control freak, he’s confident to the point of self-righteousness, and he’s often capricious. In other words, he’s like every other successful self-made CEO.

The extent to which Vince is hands-on with WWE’s product is hardly in doubt. Since abdicating his announcing gig — because Bret Hart’s departure pulled back the curtain on Vince’s ownership of the company — Vince has often watched Raw on a monitor from a seat in “Gorilla Position,” the area just behind the entrance curtain posthumously named for Monsoon, who stood watch there when Vince was at the ringside table. Vince has been known to micromanage everything from his performers’ clothing to the most precise turn of phrase that the announcers say; he’s been rumored to relay instructions down in real time into their headsets from his seat in the back.

Which is all to say that Vince takes a lot of flak for doing the sort of thing that you’d expect — or want — the attentive owner of a company to do. It might not always work out, but WWE isn’t the only business in that position. Sometimes you get an iPad and sometimes you get a hockey puck mouse. I frequently disagree with Vince, but I don’t doubt that his passion and vision are the main reasons why I’m watching wrestling on television to this day.

It also goes without saying that he governs the creative direction of WWE. In decades past, with lower audience expectations and less television time to fill, storytelling was a simpler process; the entire “script,” such as it was, could be built during a five-minute conversation between McMahon and his right-hand man Pat Patterson. Now there’s a team of writers who pitch ideas to McMahon. In both eras, McMahon is notorious for rewriting on the day of the show, sometimes up until the last minute.

And sometimes beyond the last minute, which is how the Michaels-Hall rematch came to be. There’s a moment during the ladder match when McMahon, on play-by-play, explains the rationale for having Michaels and Hall square off again. “Interim WWF president Gorilla Monsoon ordered the ladder match after the Shawn Michaels–Sycho Sid match had been announced,” Vince says. “Monsoon said, ‘No, that’s not what the WWF fans want to see — they want to see a ladder match!’ And that’s what we have here tonight, live from Pittsburgh at SummerSlam!” When you dissect that sequence, things get pretty surreal. This is WWF owner Vince McMahon pretending to be a WWF employee, parroting the edict of the interim WWF president, who is in fact just a WWF employee3 serving as a stand-in for the real Vince McMahon. When Vince explained the match’s backstory, he was coming to terms with his own equivocation.

Most readers will recall that last year, Vince the Character was removed from power by the WWE board of directors, who used his son-in-law Triple H as their messenger. After that, Triple H ran things for a while, until the board replaced him with John Laurinaitis, who was deposed by John Cena and replaced, on the 1,000th episode of Raw, by AJ Lee. The announcement of AJ’s selection was made by none other than Vince McMahon, who was presumably working as an emissary of the board of directors; he was still WWE chairman, after all, even if he wasn’t the decider on Raw. On October 8, he showed up again to give a “State of the WWE Address,” but he ended up getting into a shouting match with CM Punk, and later a full-fledged match with the champ. If it wasn’t the athletic spectacular that Michaels-Razor had been, it was still remarkably engaging for a match in which one of the participants is a 67-year-old non-wrestler. A couple weeks later, McMahon exerted his ambiguous on-screen influence to name Ryback as Punk’s opponent at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.4

In reality, this all stemmed from an arm injury to John Cena that threw WWE’s plans into disarray. Cena was supposed to be Punk’s antagonist, and both the Ryback match and McMahon’s role as Punk’s erstwhile rival were attempts to fill the gap Cena’s absence left in the story line and in the event lineups. After Hell in a Cell came Survivor Series, and most of the feuds from the previous month seemed primed to continue, with a headline match of Team Punk versus Team (Mick) Foley, featuring Ryback. Cena was healed up but sidetracked in a spat over a nonexistent affair that he supposedly had with AJ.

But then Vince reared his head again. A week after the main event of Survivor Series had been set, McMahon appeared alongside Vickie Guerrero — who had, after forcing AJ’s resignation in the Cena scandal, been named Raw‘s “managing supervisor,” which is a beautifully meaningless title for a functionally meaningless position. The Vince that appeared on Raw that night wasn’t the same Mr. McMahon who had lorded over Raw in fits and starts over the years; it certainly wasn’t the Mr. McMahon who had chosen Punk’s Hell in a Cell opponent. This was a new, subtler Vince — outsize gesticulation aside — who neatly filled his on-screen role with aplomb.

Maybe he was no longer formally in charge of Raw, but Vince was still the chairman, and so he unsubtly bullied Guerrero into changing the Survivor Series main event to a Punk-Ryback-Cena three-way match, story line continuity be damned.

It didn’t make any sense after WWE spent the preview weeks setting up the Team Punk and Team Foley match, and unlike the Hell in a Cell situation, there was no injury that precipitated the maneuver. Vince’s move called directly back to the ladder match 17 years ago, when necessity intervened in unreality. WWE was revising on the fly — the matches they had planned suddenly were deemed not good enough, and so Vince decided to give the fans what they wanted. The only difference was that this time it happened right there on screen.

Vince reappeared a couple weeks ago to strongarm Guerrero into putting Dolph Ziggler’s Money in the Bank briefcase on the line in the Cena-Ziggler match that’s finally happening at Sunday’s TLC pay-per-view. Vince no longer needed story line contrivances to shift the narrative — now he was the contrivance. He’s the god in the machine of pro wrestling unreality. It’s the role he was born to play.

The old version of on-screen Vince — “Mr. McMahon” — was a functionary, fulfilling the obligations of the script that Real Vince plotted out. (If he sometimes took discernible satisfaction in the more lurid and self-aggrandizing segments, well, he’s only human.) This new iteration of McMahon is Real Vince with only the most modest role-related trappings. He shows up at the last minute, hogs the spotlight, and changes the script. He’s either playing himself or playing the popular caricature of himself, and either way, that’s some kind of self-awareness. And just like that, Vince McMahon entered the Reality Era.

TLC, short for “Tables, Ladders, and Chairs” — emanating this Sunday from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York5 — is a pay-per-view that’s easy to understand. Most of the matches are built around some or all of the objects in the title. Ziggler and Cena will meet in a ladder match. Rey Mysterio and Sin Cara are taking on Damien Sandow and the recently mustachioed Cody Rhodes in a bout where the goal is to put your opponent through a table. The Big Show and Sheamus will be teeing off on each other with folding chairs. Ryback is joining forces with Daniel Bryan and Kane to face The Shield in a full-on “Tables, Ladders, and Chairs” match.

The glaring absence is Punk, who had minor knee surgery (with Dr. James Andrews, naturally) a week ago and was scratched from the card.6 And similar to the Michaels-Hall ladder match all those years ago, Vince McMahon has recently found himself in a situation much like the one he faced on the eve of SummerSlam ’95. Once again, McMahon was redrawing a major pay-per-view card at the last minute. This time, it wasn’t what the fans wanted, but hey, that’s the real world for you.

Of course, this time, WWE didn’t need a Gorilla Monsoon–style proxy to conceal who was making the decision. Now it’s just Vince being Vince.

Filed Under: General topics, History, Sports, Wwe

Shoemaker

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the new book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan