|Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, Excerpt 2|
By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine
Why would anyone in his right mind do what I did, which is spend more than two years delving into the world of wrestling and its most flamboyant promoter, Vince McMahon? Simple. Because nothing Hollywood could make up is as fascinating as the secret story of wrestling. And no one who has come into our living rooms over the last 20 years is as fascinating as Vince.
Hollywood has tried to marginalize him, ignore him, even throw him off the air. But he has kept his hold as the king of the ring by fighting everyone from the government to Ted Turner. And with each battle that he has won, he has added another chapter to one of the strangest success stories in TV history.
Unfortunately, you can't trust a professional prevaricator to tell his own tale. So longtime wrestling columnist Mike Mooneyham and I conducted more than 300 interviews and unearthed never-before-seen documents to tell the real story -- "Sex, Lies & Headlocks" -- of how wrestling came to dominate the cable airwaves, and how McMahon came to dominate wrestling.
Here is the second excerpt from our book, centering on the war between McMahon and Ted Turner's WCW. Just how low would Vince go? -- Shaun Assael
The second installment of Monday Nitro was held on September 11, 1995, in Miami. And though this was the first time that Nitro and Monday Night Raw aired against one another, both shows weren't truly live. As a cost-saving measure, Vince taped two weeks worth of Raw in a single marathon session. Only the first hour was broadcast live. The second one was saved for the next week. Knowing in advance that the September 11 episode was taped, Eric Bischoff opened his show by crowing: "In case you're tempted to grab the remote control and check out the competition, don't bother. It's two or three weeks old. Shawn Michaels beats the big guy with a superkick that couldn't earn a green belt at a YMCA. Stay right here. It's live."
Since the steroid trial, the WWF had been going through a very public repositioning, and Ortman was one of tis architects. A canny tactician, he was troubled by the fact that Congress was taking up the issue of violence in the entertainment industry as part of an omnibus crime bill. If the rider that dealt with televison passed, it would bump violent programming into the late evening, causing a massive drop in the preteen audience at a time when the WWF could least afford it. (The fallout from the trial included the dissolution of a licensing deal with Hasbro.)
Concluding that the best defense was a good offense, Ortman suggested that they get ahead of the curve by positioning themselves as socially responsible. He helped create a corporate manifesto called The Principles that assured affiliates the WWF would ban a catalog of raunchy things during peak hours for underage viewing, among them "the use of a foreign object as a weapon (i.e., the ring bell, chair or other props), blood employed for dramatic effect, and aggressive behavior toward women." As he saw it, congressional pressure would accumulate around WCW instead of WWF, causing Turner to end up in trouble with the one constituency that mattered: his stockholders. McMahon endorsed the plan and promptly lent his name to a series of "Dear Ted" missives. As one of them began:
"On Sunday ... Turner Broadcasting will kick off the cable industry's Voices Against Violence week by presenting its most violet pay-per-view ever -- WCW Uncensored ... This tasteless event is being marketed by describing how bones pierce through skin, eyes might be displaced, a person's head may be dragged on asphalt from moving vehicle, and a leather strap could cut through flesh like a machete.
"The reputation of the company you built will be shaken if this event is allowed to go on as promoted. This letter marks my fourth written attempt to privately implore your company to reduce the incidents to gratuitous violence and unethical solicitation. While I initially held out hope that things were improving, I must now conclude that a consensus decision has been made by your WCW to fill a creative voice with increased violent content. In order to further distance my product from yours, WCW's actions have left me no choice but to place your product under a more public microscope."
Since the trial, McMahon had weaned himself off his rope-muscled steroid gallery by using men like Canada's Bret Hart, the sultry and sneering Shawn Michaels, and Kevin Nash, who got his WWF start appearing as Michaels's bodyguard and was now drawing better reactions than Hart. To show he was now a promoter with a social conscience, McMahon even sent the three on a Christmas season "Wish" tour to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
The undercard contests were hard-fought and exciting, and the main event pitting Hart against Nash was a perfect example of the license plate's message. The men didn't have to rely on violent gimmicks because they were athletes. But then something happened to make Ortman shift in his seat. Hart pulled out a chair and leveled Nash with it. In response, Nash rose to his feet and ripped a TV monitor loose from its sockets to go after Hart. Ortman pretended to be nonplussed, mentioning to his guests that pay-per-views, unlike broadcast shows, were supposed to be a bit edgy. But after the show he cornered Vince backstage. "Just give me the words to explain to those folks what I just saw," he said.
"Two guys just got carried away," Vince replied. Then he wrapped a thick hand around Ortman's shoulder and added, "It won't happen again, Mike. I promise."
On Sunday, December 17, Ortman was in his home when he flicked on the follow-up pay-per-view, In Your House. Once again, the matches unfolded as expected until Hart met Nash. Not a minute into their bout, Hart fell on a raft of metal stairs and split his forehead. With blood streaming down all sides of his face, he continued to wrestle. No sooner had he won than Linda called Ortman to say, "Vince knew you'd be upset, Mike. But we didn't have anything to do with Bret cutting his head. It was an accident, and we still had a half hour to go with the show."
While that may have been true (and there is ample reason to believe it wasn't, that Hart had bladed himself), the McMahons couldn't have been unhappy with the result. Footage from the match was edited into Raw's opening sequence, and a memo was distributed through Titan Tower warning that while they had a "responsibility to exercise appropriate restraint when younger, unsupervised viewers may be watching," the company's shows "may include elements which are consistent with the time period." Nitro was in its eleventh week, and the two shows were even in the ratings. To Ortman, the memo suggested that the WWF could no longer afford to have principles.
In January, Vince announced he wanted to do a series of skits lampooning Turner. Aides tried to talk him out of it, reminding him that he had a long-standing policy of never acknowledging the competition. But he dismissed their concerns. "It's going to be the funniest thing we've ever done," he said.
The first episodes, which started airing in January 1996, were funny. An actor in a terrible toupee and a cheap suit portrayed Turner leading a roundtable meeting of his top acts, which included a white-haired Huckster and his portly sidekick, the Nacho Man. In one skit, as images of Vince's current acts flickered onto the boardroom projector screen, the limp-skinned Huckster sighed and said, "No way can I do that, brutha. At my age my feet don't even leave the ground."
But over the next six weeks, the vignettes went from funny to malicious. In a draft of one script entitled "TV Trivia," Turner was depicted as a game show contestant playing beside a dizzy blonde. As the host introduced a Jeopardy-like category called "Pompous Quotes," the draft called for this dialogue:
HOST: Who made the racial comment, "As for blacks, well, most of them are not black anyway. They're brown. Well, aren't they? It's very seldom you see a black black."
TED: Michael Jackson. [buzzer]
GIRL: That's funny, Billionaire Ted.
HOST: Right! Next question. What famous person said this? "King Henry VIII didn't' get divorced, he just had his wives' heads chopped off … Now, that's a good way to get rid of a woman -- alimony."
TED: Why that was my buddy, O.J. [buzzer]
GIRL: [To Ted] Shame on you, Billionaire Ted. [Ding ding ding.]
HOST: Yes! The correct answer is Billionaire Ted ...
The more elaborate the skits, the more Vince became willing to stop the company's work to produce them. Employees were sent e-mails directing them to drop what they were doing because extras were urgently needed in the WWF's in-house production studios. But what little humor was left in the rivalry disappeared when McMahon directed his legal staff to send a brief to the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that merger talks between Turner and Time Warner be stopped because Turner was "engaged in a systematic plan to destroy the WWF."
That was too much for Kay Koplovitz. The president of the USA Network had been following the Time Warner talks, too, and though she and Turner were fierce rivals when it came to programming, she had to be more circumspect where Time Warner was concerned. After all, the media giant owned cable systems around the country that accounted for about 10 million of USA's 70 million viewers. While Koplovitz usually didn't interfere with what the McMahons broadcast, the Billionaire Ted skits put her in an indelicate position. After the March 18 episode of Raw featured Turner as the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men -- thundering the famous line, "You want the truth, you can't handle the truth!" -- Koplovitz decided things were going too far. Something had to be done.
The word came to Ortman in a phone message from one of Koplovitz's top aides: Not only would there be no more Billionaire Ted skits on USA, the network wanted to see advance copies of his scripts and have a representative at all future creative meetings. It was more than just the skits that worried the network president. Raw's ratings were as low as they'd been since the show was launched. And other strange things that Vince was trying weren't working. Doink the Clown, for instance, had started innocently as a circus-like act but had bizarrely morphed into a kind of evil slasher-film villain. He'd chase fans into the audience, followed by his midget assistant, Dink. It was as if Vince's dark side was spilling out without any of the perspective or filters that had carried him to the top of the business in the eighties. Koplovitz thought that Vince was letting the strain get to him. She'd seen it before in Hollywood. He was losing his balance. He needed someone to keep him in touch with the outside world.
The person she chose to pair him with was Wayne Becker, a former golf programmer who favored double-breasted suits and presented himself as an urbane insider. He was fiercely loyal to Koplovitz, who he viewed as a genuine pioneer. As he put it later, "As far as we were concerned, the WWF was low maintenance as long as Vince was behaving himself. But the whole FTC thing really changed that."
Going to Midwestern arenas to monitor the WWF shows was slow torture for Becker, who was used to the more genteel world of PGA clubhouses. But he dutifully did it, and what he saw genuinely opened his eyes. "Vince is very hard to deal with because he's such a character," says Becker. "There are times where your greatest challenge is trying to decide whether his view of reality is the same as your because he is so into what he was doing. I never knew if I was dealing with Vince the person or the character because he'd waffle back and forth."
Of all the things the WWF did, nothing struck Becker as more darkly confusing than an androgynous character named Goldust. As played by Dustin Runnels, the son of Virgil Runnels (Dusty Rhodes), Goldust was a giant wink to the gay community, though it was hard to imagine many found it all that fun to watch him beat rivals with the kinds of homoerotic advances that sent them out of the ring screaming. Dustin spent hours in makeup, streaking his long and puffy face with golden paint and black lipstick, then framing it with a platinum blond wig that dipped past the shoulder pads of his massive pantsuits. Once he disappeared into character, he was willing to do anything to shock, including running his hands over his breasts and crotch in the ring and making bondage part of the act by wearing dog collars and spiked bras.
What struck Becker wasn't just that Goldust sprang from the minds of men who had some pretty f****d-up ways of amusing themselves. What struck him was that Dustin was running his career into the ground -- as a wrestler, he'd never quite recover from the act -- simply to spite his father. Becker also thought that McMahon seemed to take special delight in stoking the family feud, which as best as Becker could tell involved Dustin's marriage to an ex-cosmetologist named Terri Boatwright, who vamped around his cigar-smoking manager. (In a speech that he gave in full costume one evening on Raw, Dustin showed how many levels wrestling scripts could operate on when he spoke directly to his father through camera's lens. He said: "All those years I looked up to you, you were bigger than life, and I wanted to be just like you. I wanted to live like you. So I became a professional wrestler … There is no one on the planet who can do Goldust as well as I can. I hope you're proud of my family and myself. I'm very proud of them.")
But as uncomfortable as Goldust made Becker, he also realized he was a stranger in a strange land and had to proceed cautiously. He had to earn Vince's trust. It was something of a breakthrough, then, when Vince approached him one day to solicitously ask for a piece of advice. On Raw that night, he wanted one of his wrestlers to refer to Goldust as a queer. Becker knew that Vince had already made up his mind to do it, but he acknowledged the gesture. When he was told that Goldust would fight back, he agreed. It may not have been a huge step in the cause of human rights, but it was a small step in the cause of Wayne Becker's gaining the trust of Vince McMahon.
The effect of that night's show, and others like it, was evident in a focus group that USA commissioned. A tape of one of the sessions showed a group of 14-and-15-year-old boys gathered around a conference table behind a one-way mirror. Asked about their favorite viewing habits, they ticked off a long list of sports. When one mentioned wrestling, they all quickly agreed that, yes, they watched it, too. Their favorite show? Raw, they all answered. Then the moderator asked each to pick a character they didn't' like. "Goldust," said one boy in a down parka with a pair of headsets dangling from his neck. "He's a queer." But, interrupted another kid, "he's got a chick." The reference to Dustin's real-life wife prompted a lusty debate among them that was finally settled by a third boy. "Nah," he concluded. "She's a lesbian."
It scarcely mattered to the McMahons that Goldust was giving millions of teenagers their first images of what gay men acted and sounded like. He was a heel, and in the moral nexus of Vince's world, there was only one way to deal with someone like that. You had to beat the s*** out of him.
That job fell to Roddy Piper, who was making a return to the WWF in Wrestlemania XII at the Pond in Anaheim in March 1996. In a pre-taped vignette at a nearby lot, Piper waited for Goldust in a white Bronco, clutching a baseball bat. When Dustin, made up as Goldust, arrived at the lot in a speeding gold Cadillac, Piper cut him off with his Bronco, leaped out of the car, and started madly smashing the Cadillac's windows. As the glass shattered everywhere, Dustin ran for cover, and then Piper hunted him down.
In any other context, it would have been called a hate crime. But wheat Ortman had come to accept, and what Becker had discovered, was that the rules were different when you called it wrestling.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is published by Crown Books.