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The Misunderstood History of American Wrestling

A recent biography of Vince McMahon presents him as an entertainment tycoon who changed culture and politics. The real story is as banal as it is brutal.
Abraham Josephine Riesman

The story of American pro wrestling since at least 1980 is in many ways the story of Vince McMahon himself. In Ringmaster, a new biography of McMahon, the journalist Abraham Josephine Riesman charts his Citizen Kane–like journey from local wrestling promoter to robber baron, as he secured a near-monopoly of the American wrestling industry. Riesman’s thesis is that McMahon and the culture he produced is of a piece with the rightward lurch of American culture and the rise of one Donald Trump, a longtime associate of McMahon’s who has made cameos in his shows over the years. Yet one wonders if this gives McMahon too much credit.

Back in the 1980s, even as his stock was rising, McMahon was far from the only scummy boss in pro wrestling. Retired wrestler and former NFL lineman Jim Wilson saw the novel flurry of interest from wrestling outsiders as an opportunity to expose the sport’s dismal labor conditions: As he would later document in the 2003 book Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring, Wilson was blacklisted from the industry after he began working toward the still-unrealized horizon of unionizing the locker room. At that time, the WWF was the clunkier WWWF, and its promoter was Vince’s father, Vincent James McMahon Sr., whose territory encompassed the Northeast; wrestlers to this day refer to going to WWE as working “New York” or “up North,” even as the company has expanded to become—literally—worldwide.

Jim Wilson never worked for either McMahon, but he was more than familiar with the shady tactics and exploitative practices carried out by the bosses of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), from stiffing wrestlers on their pay to blacklisting and sexual abuse. The elder McMahon was a central member of the NWA, an oligopoly of affiliated promoters that first solidified control over American wrestling and had long been the subject of antitrust suits. Wilson would make appearances on several media programs across the 1980s, hoping that publicly blowing the whistle on an industry that often operated without regulation or oversight would lead to some protection for wrestlers.