By Mike Mooneyham

June 29, 2003

To the untrained eye, it might have been difficult to determine whether or not Vince McMahon was in character when he angrily attempted to slap the notes out of interviewer Armen Keteyian’s hands Tuesday night on HBO’s “Real Sports.”

The 57-year-old WWE owner had indignantly scoffed at the line of questioning from the HBO reporter, who asked the most powerful man in the sports entertainment industry if he felt at all responsible for any of the untimely deaths of wrestlers under his watch.

McMahon did himself no favors with his belligerent reaction. But it wasn’t his first outburst on an HBO special.

Vince McMahon, Jr.

Vince McMahon, Jr.

McMahon launched a scathing verbal offensive against interviewer Bob Costas on an edition of HBO’s “On The Record” two years ago, going on a tirade and at times appearing to be out of control. He even went so far as to tell the generally mild-mannered Costas to “shut up” before walking out of the studio mid-interview.

Later admitting that he wasn’t going to actually hit the sportscaster, McMahon downplayed his temper tantrum as a mere extension of his passion for the business. As uneasy as that interview/confrontation was to watch, last week’s exchange was just as unsettling.

While there’s little doubt that McMahon feels deeply about many of the names on the list of the fallen, he could have scored valuable points by expressing that sentiment on national television, before a largely non-wrestling audience that associates his pretentious and callous on-air character with the more sordid aspects of the wrestling business. Instead, he projected the image of a somewhat unfeeling corporate suit in a manner unbecoming of a CEO of a major company, particularly in such a public forum.

Whether he was in character as “the evil Mr. McMahon” or genuinely disturbed by Keteyian’s interrogation, McMahon would have been well served to maintain his composure and reserve his animated, mocking gestures for Raw or Smackdown.

But that wouldn’t have been Vince McMahon. Long leery of media types who question his business practices and even his professional ethics, McMahon has made a career out of countering with “in-your-face” recriminations. Partly because it’s inherit in his nature to defend a business that for years was closed to the rest of society, McMahon feels it’s a duty to protect at all costs an empire he inherited from his late father, one that nearly was taken from him by the federal government a decade ago.

In Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s world, the biggest, meanest dog on the block always gets the bone. It’s a world dominated by strong, charismatic heels that know how to play to the camera. Vince McMahon filled that role to a tee Tuesday night. What many viewed as a public embarrassment, McMahon no doubt saw as a public relations coup.

What aired last week on the 12-minute segment was just a small portion of the footage HBO had at its disposal, having conducted a number of interviews over the past year. Much of that footage, however, never made it past the cutting-room floor, reportedly due to legal overtures from WWE.

Short shrift was given to an Olympic-quality drug-testing program implemented by WWE in the wake of an early ‘90s steroids scandal that nearly sent the company owner to prison. The plug was pulled on the program several years later, with the company citing financial reasons. With the negative publicity behind it, the mat outfit felt no obligation to continue the cost-prohibitive program, especially since WCW, its chief competitor, had no such restrictions and was producing bigger and more marketable athletes.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any success stories. Columbia native Del “The Patriot” Wilkes, who was interviewed for the HBO show, spent nine months in prison for prescription drug fraud. His 11-year pro career ended in 1997 after he suffered his third torn triceps. Once a hundred-pill-a-day abuser and an admitted full-fledged junkie, Wilkes is now a model citizen. Others, such as William Regal (Darren Matthews) and Eddie Guerrero, have benefited from drug rehabilitation stints funded by WWE. Unfortunately, for every success story, there are far too many who slide into the abyss.

How much – if any – responsibility McMahon should accept for the preponderance of premature deaths among professional wrestlers is up for debate. What isn’t debatable is that this tragedy should be laid at the feet of the larger wrestling community – the promoters who push the bigger bodies, the wrestlers who crave “the look,” and even an audience that sadly has been conditioned to demand that performers constantly push the limit. There is plenty of responsibility to go around. And, ultimately, it comes down to personal decisions and individual choices, especially when taking such calculated risks.

To some inside the industry, the HBO segment may have come off as just another exploitative piece, an easy ratings grab or a hatchet job that just as easily could have been done at the expense of another controversial sport, such as boxing, a prized property of HBO. In the past the wrestling business has weathered numerous onslaughts from the mainstream media, only to survive and fight another day. Little, however, changes. It’s a business with no union, no health benefits and little job security. Its performers are independent contractors, subject to the whims of promoters.

Those who contend a problem doesn’t exist are just burying their heads in the sand. The list of deaths cited by HBO pales in comparison to the unofficial list of wrestlers whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by the business. To claim that similar problems exist in other sports and entertainment fields is to completely ignore the one at hand.

And it’s certainly not a problem solely borne by Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment. The now-defunct WCW had an equally poor track record with substance abuse and, with little or no drug-testing, exercised minimal control over the health of its performers.

The wrestling business in general has been a breeding ground for unhealthy lifestyles.

The drugs of the ‘70s and early ‘80s – alcohol, marijuana and cocaine – have largely given way to performance-enhancing drugs that can have even graver consequences and result in more violent, irrational behavior. While the performers of three decades ago needed stimulants to keep them on the road nearly 365 days a year, the choice of drugs today include painkillers, which numb the constant aches and pains resulting from a more dangerous and high-risk in-ring style, and supplements that produce the “bigger is better” look while pushing the hearts of many over the edge.

What’s worse is that many feel compelled to dope, taking their bodies beyond their genetic limitations, at any cost just to keep their jobs. The HBO report claimed that more than 60 current or former pro wrestlers under the age of 45 have died in the last five years. It also made clear that many of those deaths were not necessarily tied to drug abuse, and that many on the list worked for independent promotions as opposed to major companies. Pro wrestling – and its extreme lifestyle – was the common thread.

The lasting image many will take from the HBO piece was that of Roddy Piper, a victim of what he calls “The Sickness,” the title for the segment. The presentation of Piper as a sad and tragic figure drove home a reality of the business that most of its fans aren’t privy to. Piper, 49, has long lived in a world where fantasy and reality often become blurred.

“I hate that guy, ’cause I know what that guy’s thinking,” Piper said in the segment. “I know what that guy’s capable of doing. I know what he’s thought of. There’s nothing nice about that guy at all … That guy being Roddy Piper.”

The lasting image for all, though, is that it’s a business where the stars die young.

“Wrestling has a tremendous entrance plan … But it’s got no exit plan,” Piper lamented.

Ironically, Piper would again find himself in the employ of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment. “What would you have me do at 49?” Piper asked. “I can’t touch my pension plan until I’m 65. I’m not going to make 65. Let’s just face facts.”

Not so surprisingly, he was fired shortly after the HBO segment aired.

There’s a price for the rush of the crowd, the fame and the fortune that comes with being a wrestling superstar. And for many, the payment comes due way too soon.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected]. He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown.