WHEN American wrestling comes to Waterford next week, it will be bringing all the colour and controversy that’s made the sport so hugely popular in the US. Mixing its typical pomp and razzmatazz, the event is advertised as “epic encounters inside the ring like nothing you have seen before”.
In a game where names like ‘Hulk’ Hogan, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Triple H have become legendary, this clash of washboard abs, total smackdowns and ultimate blow-offs is a whole other world compared to Waterford’s more familiar clash of the ash in Walsh Park. “These are the superstars of wrestling who are taking a break from their tours of America, Europe, Japan and Mexico to take part in a giant one-off extravaganza,” says promoter Stephen Muldoon. “It’s the kind of event that people in Ireland wouldn’t normally get a chance to see, and it will definitely give audiences a taste of why the sport is so huge in the US and elsewhere.”
Like many American sports born in the last century, wrestling has deep Irish connections — specifically, the McMahon family, emigrants from Galway who began as boxing promoters around New York around 1905. Recently ranked in the Forbes Rich List as one of the wealthiest families in America, the dynasty began when brothers Roderick and Edward founded the Olympic Athletic Club in Harlem to promote boxing matches around the Northeast region.
Capitalising on the popularity of the sport, by 1915 they staged the World Boxing Association match between Jess Willard and then-champion Jack Johnson in a 45-round fight in Havana. Spotting the growing popularity of wrestling in the 1930s, they then branched into promoting blue-collar heroes of the ring like Jim Browning, Hans Kampfer, Mike Romano and Everette Marshall. In the 1950s, son James ‘Jess’ McMahon took over the family business, eventually creating the Worldwide Wrestling Federation, forerunner of today’s World Wrestling Entertainment. In 1982, Jess McMahon sold the company to his son, Vincent, the current powerhouse who took the sport into a global sphere by unconventional methods that were as financially canny as they were colourful. “Had my father known what I was going to do,” he said in a 1991 interview, “he never would have sold his stock to me.”
A believer in what he called “pure sports entertainment”, Vince McMahon has built the brand into a billion-dollar business through weekly television coverage and ‘wrestling spectaculars’ at arenas of up to 100,000. In a business where villains are a vital element in the staged contests, McMahon introduced storylines to the sport with manic bad guys rousing the audience’s emotions to fever pitch as they grapple and grope for the ultimate smackdown. “Professional wrestling has always been a show,” McMahon once declared. “The worst sound in our business is silence, that means they don’t care.”
McMahon, a former WWF champion himself, instituted a gritty edge to the ring encounters of crowd favourites like ‘Hulk’ Hogan and ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan, making his Monday Night Raw one of television’s most popular sports shows. Frequently walking the thin line between bad taste and controversy, McMahon’s infamous ‘Kiss My Ass’ club aptly demonstrated his gift for showmanship. Having taken over his longtime rival, World Championship Wrestling, in 2001, McMahon introduced a storyline where newcomers to his stable were forced to publicly ‘pucker up and plant a wet one’ on his posterior — or face the threat of being fired.
Sometimes, however, McMahon’s claim that “we have our finger on the pulse of the marketplace, we are listening to our audience all the time” has proven misguided. In 1994, he was accused of distributing steroids to his wrestlers — a scandal that hit at the very heart of the WWE. While admitting that he himself had taken the drug, McMahon denied supplying and walked free due to lack of evidence. Another unsavoury incident occurred when the news broke in 2007 that wrestler Chris Benoit had died suddenly, and the usual Monday Night Raw was cancelled to be replaced by a tribute show extolling the wrestler’s famous fights. When it later emerged that Benoit had in fact murdered his wife and son before killing himself it became another episode revealing the dark underbelly of the sport.
On a lighter note, McMahon’s long animosity with Donald Trump saw him challenge the New Yorker to a fight in January 2007 — an event immediately christened ‘Hair versus Hair’. After a number of press conferences where both billionaires threw jabs and shapes at each other, the pair finally decided on proxies to wrestle in their places with the loser agreeing to have his head shaved. Billed as the ‘Battle of the Billionaires,’ Trump’s fighter, Bobby Lashley, eventually defeated McMahon’s choice, Umaga, in a match refereed by ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. McMahon was then shaved live on television — another ratings triumph.
From high farce to low blows, Vince McMahon’s ongoing tenure as chief of World Wrestling Entertainment has taken the sport into a global sphere with programming in 145 countries — another Irish-American success story, but in an unexpected arena.
Playing the numbers game
* WWE is a global company, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, London, Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore, Istanbul and Tokyo.
* Total revenues were $152 million in the second quarter of 2013, up 8% from the same period in 2012.
* WWE changed its name in 2002 from WWF to avoid confusion with the World Wildlife Fund
* WWE programming is broadcast in 150 countries and 30 languages worldwide, and reaches more than 600 million people. Each week, WWE creates seven hours of original programming watched by approximately 14 million in the US.
* WWE’s television flagship, ‘Monday Night Raw’, is a three-hour primetime programme broadcast weekly. Since 2008, all of WWE’s broadcast programming became PG classified. WWE’s ‘Saturday Morning Slam’ is specially made for kids. Many wrestlers have played collegiate or professional sports. In joining the WWE, they become “successful entertainers, who have mastered the art of bringing their characters to life”.
* The wrestling audience spans generations of fans. Approximately 35% of WWE’s audience is female and 24% are under 18.
* The American Wrestling Roadshow is at the Theatre Royal, Waterford, on Sept 27.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved