Considering that Vince McMahon’s personal net worth is estimated to be $922,616,594.00 following the end of 2016, it is even more amazing to re-examine the first two years that he operated the WWE under Titan Sports. With an eye on becoming the premiere professional wrestling organization not only nationally, but internationally, a lot of key steps needed to come together at the beginning to launch his brand. However, there were a number of obstacles, and some of them were on his very own payroll.
On the heels of breaking a WrestleMania attendance record in 2016, with more than 101,000 people attending WrestleMania 32 in person, 2017’s event is shaping up to have just as much box office traction. But the whole 33 year legacy of the company under Vince and Linda McMahon could have crumbled right out of the gate due to any one of the challenges set before them as they attempted to evolve wrestling into a sports entertainment empire.
From threats leveled at them from long established promoters to the misbehavior of their own wrestlers who were now more visible than at any time in wrestling’s past, the early construction of Titan Tower more closely resembled a house of cards.
Below are 15 reasons why Vince’s gamble on the first WrestleMania was a risky proposition.
15. Vindictive Verne Gagne
On the heels of Hulk Hogan’s small role in Rocky III as Thunderlips “The Ultimate Male,” he had greater exposure than he had up to that point in his young career. American Wrestling Association promoter Verne Gagne demonstrated some savvy by marketing a large poster of Hogan from his Rocky appearance on his merchandise stand and it elevated Hogan’s status on the card in 1983, including elevating him to World title matches against Nick Bockwinkel. However, Gagne failed to pull the trigger and invest in Hogan as his franchise player.
In the meantime, Vince McMahon Jr. was looking for a keystone to build his brand around as he was going national. He poached Hogan and started ushering him toward the WWE World title. When Gagne learned of the title match against The Iron Sheik, he called his former student The Shiek and offered him $100,000 to break Hogan’s leg during the championship match that propelled his career. History would have been forever changed had Sheik accepted the offer.
14. Gorilla Monsoon was Invested in Vince’s Failure
While Vince Jr. idolized his father and craved to take over the family business as his father started to consider retirement, Senior wasn’t fully on board with the decision. He set the terms of the purchase so that Vince would make a series of payments and if at any time he was late on an instalment, the ownership would revert back to Senior’s partners. The largest stakeholder in the mix was Gorilla Monsoon, who stood to assume a controlling interest in the company if Junior failed to meet his obligations.
After the final payment was made and Vince Jr. made good on his end of the deal, he found a place for Monsoon in the company for the remainder of his life – first as a commentator and later as the figurehead president of the company. While there are no reports of friction between Monsoon and Vince under the new regime, one could expect that he was disappointed.
13. Harley Race’s Revolver
Ask anyone that ever had the opportunity to lock horns with Harley Race between the ropes and you’ll hear that he was one of the most no-nonsense competitors to ever make a living on the mat. What many fans may not realize is that with the passage of years, Harley was invested in the Central States Wrestling territory and had a financial stake in the success of the circuit. As the WWE expanded from a northeastern territory to present matches in territories that historically belonged to other promoters, they were impacting Harley’s business.
The story goes that Harley was in the building for his own show in Kansas City one night when the WWE came to the city for an event across town. Race left his own venue and turned up at the competition’s building. Hulk Hogan says that Harley first tried unsuccessfully to set the ring on fire prior to the doors being opened. However, he returned later in the evening with his gun drawn and told Hogan “I came here to blow your knee caps off.” Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.
12. Ken Patera’s Cheeseburger Binge
Olympic strongman Ken Patera had seen success in the WWE in 1980 with a 231-day reign as Intercontinental champion. He returned home to Minnesota and was working for Verne Gagne when a post-match incident landed him in hot water. Looking for somewhere to eat after the matches and coming up empty, Patera managed to find a McDonald’s restaurant that had just closed and he could see that they had cheeseburgers that they were just going to discard. When the staff failed to accommodate his request, he destroyed a window in the restaurant. When the police caught up with him later at his hotel, there was a physical altercation with the attending officers. In the wake of the bad publicity, Patera left Minnesota and returned to the WWE and was actually on the roster in 1985 in the months leading up to WrestleMania. However, with his trial pending, he missed out on the pay-per-view, as he was sentenced to two years in prison just months after WrestleMania I.
11. Bruno’s Court Challenge
One of the first setbacks for Vince McMahon Jr. as the new owner of the family’s wrestling company was that he took command at a time when his father’s greatest drawing attraction, Bruno Sammartino, was engaged in a lawsuit against the company. During a recent interview on the WWE Network with JBL, this is glossed over by saying simply that Bruno was “estranged from the company for a while.” Sammartino was suing for unpaid royalties, arguing that while he netted a percentage of gates whenever he appeared, he had been excluded from the percentage of proceeds from his televised appearances, which he estimated to be in the area of $100,000.
The matter was ultimately settled out of court and Bruno would return in a limited capacity with the WWE for a few years – including lacing up his boots for a few matches against some of the villains being groomed for top spots in the company.
10. The Talent Hadn’t Drunk the Kool-Aid
In Roddy Piper’s book, In the Pit with Piper, he describes one of the first meetings that Vince held with the talent after amassing a roster that pulled the best stars from every wrestling territory around the country. Some of these stars had wrestled for the WWE previously, but just viewed it as another territory. Some, like Greg Valentine and Don Muraco, had already been wrestling for 15 years and had been headliners for sold-out shows in other territories. Piper describes that it was like trying to reign in a herd of gorillas – each focused on their own individual careers and prepared for their next move if Vince didn’t deliver as promised.
Add to that, there were some who were disgruntled, like Greg Valentine, who alleges that he had been promised a run as WWE World champion upon signing, but the plan changed without notification after Vince secured Hulk Hogan to a contract.
9. Jerry Jarrett Suing Jimmy Hart
As Vince McMahon and his talent relations team were scouring the nation for talent, George Scott and Vince McMahon were high on a manager that they saw out of Memphis by the name Jimmy Hart. Jimmy had actually ignored the first two calls, as he believed that somebody was ribbing him. It wasn’t until his friend Hillbilly Jim called and assured him that the offer was genuine that he took the call. Within weeks, Jimmy was managing King Kong Bundy in the shortest WrestleMania match for many years.
However, in leaving the territory, Hart approached Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett to let them know he was moving on. Jarrett was so angry that he threatened to sue Jimmy, who fired back with a vow to counter-sue, and they were at a stalemate. Lawler and Jarrett had set up a scenario to give Jimmy his exit on television but Hart, fearing a double cross and perhaps a physical assault, skipped the appearance.
8. Brutus Beefcake Was Disliked in the Locker Room
Wrestlers in the locker room at the time strongly disliked Brutus Beefcake. It was felt that he had a job solely because of his long-standing friendship with Hulk Hogan. Many of his peers felt that he was under-qualified to be part of this team, which was being billed as the elite of the industry. That tension must only have gotten worse when Beefcake was paired with a ring general, Greg Valentine, forming The Dream Team. They enjoyed a lengthy run as WWE tag team champions, unseating the U.S. Express – Mike Rotunda & Barry Windham.
It is somewhat telling that while Brutus enjoyed about a decade in the company, he has yet to be inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame, even though he was one of the most memorable characters of his era. Beefcake remained, even as others were released or departed for other opportunities.
7. The Locker Room Drug Culture
Make no mistake about it, the drug culture in the locker room during the 1980s was a bit of an unmonitored free for all. One story that has circulated among wrestlers is a 1985 incident backstage at Madison Square Garden, when a headline villain was snorting cocaine in a bathroom stall. Vince McMahon and Pat Patterson flanked the stall and peeked over the top, catching the star wrestler in the act. He looked at them both nonchalantly and said: “Look out there, we sold this place out. I’m doing my job, leave me alone.”
The story goes that McMahon and Patterson backed off and left the matter unresolved. The first significant drug related death in the company occurred in November 1985 when Rick McGraw, just 30 years old, died of a heart attack. Bret Hart has reported seeing McGraw incapacitated in locker rooms after consuming Placidyl.
6. Andre the Giant and John Studd legitimately hated each other
“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Bobby Heenan have both separately reported that Andre The Giant and John Studd had legitimate animosity with one another. For a long time, it has been rumored that Studd’s boastful claims to be the “real giant” of professional wrestling was considered a threat to his spot on the marquee. In reality, Duggan says that Studd had mis-stepped early in their interactions with one another by calling Andre a “circus freak.” Andre never dismissed the disrespect and was overly aggressive with Studd between the ropes. Aggravating the situation was that Studd, trying to handle Andre with kid gloves so as not to set him off, actually made Andre more angry and he would throttle Studd even worse.
Still, the battle of these two biggest men on the roster meant that their paths would cross at WrestleMania I, as well as WrestleMania V, in addition to dozens of other house show matches around the country.
5. The death of Nancy Argentino
To this day, WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy Snuka is celebrated for his iconic cage matches, in which he would scale the structure and deliver his Superfly splash from the top of the cage to his prone opponent. His 1983 feud with Don Muraco over the Intercontinental title had set him up for what was sure to be a featured role as Vince McMahon rolled out a cartoon series, action figures and a host of kid-friendly merchandising. However, the course of Jimmy Snuka’s career took a dramatic turn on May 11, 1983, when his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, turned up dead.
Snuka was immediately under a cloud of suspicion and while a rumored out-of-court settlement delayed the damaging headlines for the growing brand, it did remove Jimmy Snuka from a projected spot at the first WrestleMania. As fans are aware, there has been a renewed effort by the Argentino family to secure justice for Nancy, though Snuka’s deteriorating mental and physical health may exempt him from the proceedings.
4. David Schultz Assaulting John Stossel
As professional wrestling was taking its first unsteady steps from Saturday morning fare to prime-time visibility with Saturday Night’s Main Event, the American mainstream media got very interested in what Vince McMahon was doing. The incorporation of celebrities from other branches of pop culture, including chart-topping Cyndi Lauper and TV action star Mr. T, had the news outlets interested, even if they were still approaching from a very condescending position about the legitimacy of the industry as a professional sport.
ABC reporter John Stossel ran afoul of David Schultz with a question that has been addressed to wrestlers for generations. Schultz responded physically to a question about whether wrestling was fake. In the aftermath, Stossel sued the WWE and Schultz lost his spot as a result. The incident propelled Roddy Piper from a manager role for Paul Orndorff and Schultz to become a principal in the match. Schultz’s career never recovered.
3. Cyndi Lauper and Roddy Piper’s ambition
On the heels of the media frenzy stemming from the David Schultz incident with Stossel, Roddy Piper was being elevated to a front and center role as an antagonist, slated to give Cyndi Lauper a rather inhospitable welcome to the world of pro wrestling. Prior to their first televised interaction, Piper says that he was pulled aside by colleagues backstage and presented with a scenario. What would it mean to the visibility and notoriety of Piper as a national headliner should he actually sideline the top pop star in the country?
Piper reports that he was conflicted about what he would do, even on his way to the ring, but he could have severed the Rock ‘n Wrestling Connection that propelled the hype around the first WrestleMania had he chosen to go into business for himself. Piper did the right thing, both for the WWE and his own career, which later included dozens of film roles and even recording his own single as the decade closed.
2. Mr. T’s Cold Feet
Hulk Hogan has reported that on the day of WrestleMania, Mr. T was agitated and had threatened to leave Madison Square Garden just hours before the scheduled main event. T, who was a star in the hit television series “The A-Team” and had been a cast member in the same Rocky movie that had propelled Hulk Hogan’s career, was uneasy about what was going to take place in the match, fearing it could compromise the tough guy image that he had cultivated.
Hogan says that Mr. T was additionally rattled that there were complications with getting his entourage access to the building and this almost became the catalyst for Mr. T to walk out, despite a sold-out arena expecting to see him. Mr. T had reason to be concerned, as Roddy Piper was capitalizing on his visibility and notoriety as wrestling’s top villain and he refused to take a dive for the Hollywood actor.
1. Richard Belzer Sues Hulk Hogan
If problems with the wrestlers on the supporting cast weren’t enough to give Vince stress as he prepared for WrestleMania — for which he gambled his own home as collateral — his golden boy Hulk Hogan found himself embroiled in controversy. Hogan was a guest of Richard Belzer on his show Hot Properties and the gangly actor/comedian repeatedly challenged Hogan to try out a hold on him. Hogan eventually relented, snapping Belzer into a front face lock. However, before Hogan released the hold, Belzer reportedly lost consciousness and as a result was unceremoniously dropped on the floor.
Belzer sued Hogan and the WWE and conflicting reports say that Belzer received between $400,000 and $2 million in a settlement. While it was okay for the cast of villains to create headlines as anti-social bullies, the potential for the incident to besmirch the virtue of the “Real American” was a wrinkle that Vince could not afford.
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