Lords of the Ring

Three decades ago, a small-time wrestling promoter came up with a big idea. Thought of as a crazy notion at the time, WrestleMania helped change the way sports are presented in the United States — and created generations of superstars along the way.
Lords of the Ring

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From Left: Brie Bella, Mark Henry, Nikki Bella, John Cena. Shot exclusively for American Way by Randal Ford.

It was crunch time for Vince Kennedy McMahon.

The year was 1985, three years after McMahon and his wife, Linda, had taken control of the World Wrestling Federation, an organization founded in the ’50s by his grandfather and run later on by his father. WWF was a family business, but McMahon had plans for something far larger. The question was, would he go bust in the pursuit of his ambitions?

What few people realized at the time was that wrestling was about to emerge as a major American sport (or branch of the show-business industry, depending on your viewpoint). And McMahon, as head of the now-renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, wanted to be the driving force behind this transition. His aim was to take a marginal, regional sport and turn it into a pop culture phenomenon. To do this, he set out to launch a massively ambitious event he’d dubbed WrestleMania, which would take place at Madison Square Garden in New York City and be broadcast live across the country via a new technology called “closed-circuit television.” It was a huge gamble in terms of WWE’s finances and its reputation. Many thought the idea sounded kind of nuts.

Today, recalling the skepticism that surrounded his plan, the relentlessly laconic McMahon shrugs and says, “I do not allow my thinking to be constrained by limitations.”

In itself, WWE was a bold undertaking. McMahon had set out to meld sport and entertainment in a way that hadn’t been done before. He introduced stars like Rowdy Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan, and presented his fights as if they were performances (which, in a way, they were), setting the stage for the glitz and sizzle that’s become commonplace at major sporting events.

Until McMahon set out on his quest, pro wrestling had been a provincial affair, with scores of small organizations arranging local shows, usually in small venues with small crowds. McMahon ruffled feathers with his brazen efforts to go national. He would barge into established markets and pay TV stations to put his wrestlers on the air, infuriating the regional wrestling groups. The fans, meanwhile, loved it. They saw WWE as an embodiment of the outlaw spirit that they admired in their favorite wrestlers, legends like Harley Race and the Junkyard Dog. McMahon’s live events thrived as a result.

WrestleMania was taking the business to a new level. McMahon wanted to create a “super show.” He wanted it to be a once-in-a-lifetime card that would attract celebrities and media attention. Mention of the risks associated with this venture is met with another shrug: “I wasn’t planning to fail.” The event was a resounding success, establishing WWE as a major brand. By the end of that year, the organization had three highly rated shows a week on USA, slots on MTV, a Saturday-morning cartoon series and a host of ongoing WrestleMania events. And the success has endured: In 2014, WWE generated more than $540 million in revenue. Its programming is broadcast in more than 180 countries and 25 languages. In 2015, Forbes listed WrestleMania as No. 5 on its list of most valuable sports properties.

So it is that McMahon’s enterprise has gone from high-risk to sure-thing. Officials around North America lobby WWE to bring WrestleMania to their home states, aware that, in the past seven years alone, it has generated more than half a billion dollars in economic impact for its host cities. When WrestleMania 32 comes to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, in April, it is expected to generate around $140 million for the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and organizers hope for a record crowd. It will also, though, showcase the ideal on which the sport’s success has been built: For all its showbiz razzmatazz, WWE remains, at its core, old-fashioned family entertainment.

At 8 years old, Stephanie McMahon couldn’t grasp the financial and professional stakes of her father’s venture, but as she made her way to her seat at the inaugural WrestleMania event, she knew it was different from the other pro-wrestling cards he had taken her to. There was a new kind of buzz about the event, partly because the crowd of nearly 20,000 at Madison Square Garden included people like Muhammad Ali, Liberace, Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper.

Stephanie was used to attending live events at the Garden, often sitting with manager and wrestler Arnold Skaaland’s wife, Betty. Andre the Giant, 7-foot-4 and well north of 500 pounds, was her favorite wrestler, and the affection appeared to be mutual. The legendary fighter (dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World”) would wrap his massive hand around her ankle and give it a little squeeze, his way of acknowledging the little girl without breaking character.

“To be able to root and cheer for Andre the Giant, my friend, who body-slammed Big John Studd that night,” she recalls. “I have goose bumps just talking about it. It was just one of the most exciting nights. And it was one of the kickoffs of what would be my career.” Today, Stephanie serves as WWE’s chief brand officer and is the fourth generation of McMahons in the game.

One of her favorite matches was staged two years later, when Andre the Giant met Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 3, held at a packed Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit. From her seat in the skybox, Stephanie watched Andre making the long walk down the aisle and into battle. It was still six months before the release of The Princess Bride, in which Andre co-starred as the lovable Fezzik, so he was still playing the role of villain to Hulk Hogan’s good guy. Fans booed and hissed. Stephanie cheered Andre on, even after he lost the bout. Because, in this instance, it really didn’t matter who came out on top. Being there was all that mattered.

“When you sit there in your seat and you look out at nearly 100,000 people,” Stephanie says, “it’s as if you are sitting in a small city.”

This sense of spectacle — what McMahon called “go big or go home” — was his biggest masterstroke. Beyond the theatricality of the presentation itself, his WWE excelled at creating characters who were lovable, loathsome — and always entertaining. He called his performers “superstars” and gave them madcap costumes, outlandish personas and their own rock-and-roll theme music. Macho Man’s sequined attire made it very hard for the fans to look away. “It was pretty much the most amazing thing I’d ever seen,” says John Cena, recalling the Hulk/Andre the Giant battle in WrestleMania 3.

Besides being a budding actor (he appeared in last year’s comedy hit Trainwreck with Amy Schumer and Bill Hader), Cena is among the biggest of the new wave of WWE stars, which includes Mark Henry and the Bella Twins, Nikki and Brie. Even now, almost 13 years and 24 championships since he first took to the ring, WrestleMania remains a thrill. “It’s an accolade to be included year after year, especially this year with the potential enormity of the event,” he says of the upcoming show. “With WWE, it’s truly a global experience.”

Another big name expected to attend this year’s event is Mark Henry. A former Olympic weightlifter, Henry calls Austin, Texas, home and is excited about WrestleMania returning to the Lone Star State. Long dubbed the “world’s strongest man” by WWE, Henry, 44, is approaching 20 years on its roster. He was part of a second generation of superstars, including The Rock and Steve Austin, introduced in the mid-1990s. As such, he is a link between WWE’s ’80s heyday and the modern incarnation, which has to work even harder to thrive in today’s entertainment-on-demand culture.

 For Henry, WrestleMania 32 represents the culmination of a long and unexpected journey. Once a young wrestling fan from the tiny Texas town of Silsbee (population 6,700), he is thrilled to be competing in Texas on WWE’s highest-profile platform. “I’m 100 percent Texan, so there is a lot of pride having it in my own backyard,” he says. “I look forward to being on the grand stage.”

One of Henry’s most enduring WrestleMania memories came about in the suburbs of Chicago, in 2006, where he fought a “casket match” against The Undertaker. Henry was no stranger to big bouts, but he walked into the ring with trepidation. “I couldn’t hear,” he recalls. “The sound of the crowd was so loud. It just shook me a bit. That was my first real taste of intimidation.” Henry lost the bout, but just being in the ring with The Undertaker, who went on to win 21 straight WrestleMania matches, was enough. Henry’s young son is a huge fan of the franchise, and he’d like to create a similar moment for him at this year’s event. Maybe this time he’ll win.

For Stephanie, too, the family aspect of WrestleMania is a big part of its appeal. “It’s a generational thing,” she says. “People watch as kids, then they watch with their kids, and as grandparents watch with their grandkids.”

Stephanie’s husband, Paul Levesque, serves as WWE’s executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. His first WrestleMania was in 1995, watching the show backstage as an untested but promising rookie. He would later do battle in the ring as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the wrestling star you probably know better as “Triple H.”

Levesque got his first big break a year later, at WrestleMania 12. The hugely popular fighter The Ultimate Warrior was in search of an opponent for the event, and it was decided that Triple H, a character who came off as a pompous aristocrat, would make a good foil. Warrior charged into the ring wearing his trademark face paint, his arms adorned with tassels. A blur of theatrical violence, he made short work of the blue-blood, pressing him in the air and splashing on top of him for the win. Levesque calls the defeat “unbelievably cool.”

“A lot of people bring it up to me as if it was a sore spot in my career,” he continues. “It’s not. It’s actually something I’m really proud of. Who can say that, in their first WrestleMania ever, they got to step in the ring with one of the biggest icons in the business?” Triple H would go on to headline WrestleMania at the same venue in 2000, this time as WWE champion, the highest level possible in the realm of professional wrestling.

Levesque and Stephanie have a child of their own, a daughter who is 9 years old. “My wife had Andre the Giant and our daughter is playing pat-a-cake with Big Show,” Levesque says. “It’s just the coolest thing to see.”

Every year, in the hours before WrestleMania begins, Stephanie walks around the empty arena on her own, remembering events from the past and wondering whether her own kids will recall this one. “It is an unbelievable feeling of connection,” she says. “Having my children being a part of it is special. Because I remember how I felt when I was their age, sitting in the stands watching the show, knowing my family was such a big part of it, cheering and booing and having the greatest time.” She smiles and adds, “Just like everyone else.”