Professional wrestling has been around since the turn of the 19th century. And the business was done a certain way right up until around 1980. Then a young upstart with big ideas named Vince McMahon turned the industry on its head.
Since he acquired the WWF/WWE from his father in the early ’80s, McMahon has used aggressive tactics and innovative ideas to pace the field. Here is a history of how the mogul has kept all other competition at bay.
Born Into The Business
Family connections have always been important in professional wrestling and remain so today. But back in the 1960s and 1970s, they were nearly everything. If you weren’t connected to the sport by blood or had some kind of incredible athletic attribute, it would be hard to work in wrestling.
Vincent Kennedy McMahon had the right kind of connections as his father Vince and his Grandfather Jess had both run their own wrestling promotions. This helped make what would have been a pipe dream for many a real opportunity for young Vince.
Do Something Else, Kid
Vince McMahon did not have a typical relationship with his father. In fact, he did not even meet the man until he was 12 years old. And while he told his father that he was eager to follow in his footsteps, the old man encouraged him to do anything else.
And for a while young Vince did, working as a traveling salesman upon graduating from college. But eventually, he convinced his father to let into the business as a ring announcer. He subsequently worked his way up the chain of command.
Location, Location, Location
When McMahon was coming up in the business, wrestling organizations each had their own specified territories. To hold a show in another person’s territory was considered an act of aggression.
Each region had its own wrestling superstars, style and venues. Vince was lucky enough that his father’s territory included New York City. Not only was it a massive area, but its melting pot of residents made for a fervent grappling audience. The territory also included Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.
The WWE Attracts Stars
While each wrestler was typically signed to one promotion in one territory, they also got loaned out on occasion. And many superstars wanted to build their profile by having a match in New York City.
The biggest wrestling star in the world was Andre the Giant. The mammoth Frenchman was a star all over the world. Andre first debuted for the World Wrestling Federation in 1973 and continued to work with the promotion for the rest of his career.
Vince Disagrees With The Old School Style
As Vince Jr. became more entrenched in the family business, he had frequent arguments with his father. Vince Sr. was very much from the old school. He believed management should never be seen anywhere near the ring.
Vince Sr. also felt that wrestlers should just be wrestlers and not be seen in any other forms of entertainment. While some of the grapplers were in demand for movie or TV roles, the senior McMahon often had the personalities turn these opportunities down.
The Company Becomes His
With the McMahons’ frequent arguments about the direction of the company and Vince Sr.’s advanced age (68), something had to give. And in 1982, it did, as Vince McMahon purchased the World Wrestling Federation from his father.
Vince had big plans for the future of the company, though he kept them to himself. He later said in interviews that if his father had any idea what he planned to do, he would have never sold him the company.
McMahon Leaves The National Wrestling Alliance
The first order of business for the younger McMahon was to leave the National Wrestling Alliance. This organization was made up of all the different wrestling territories across the country.
Once the WWF left the alliance the territory system was basically over. McMahon now planned on making his World Wrestling Federation into a national phenomenon. The move was a controversial one and members of the alliance made multiple death threats against the new WWF owner.
Vince Begins To Poach Talent
With his refusal to accept the territory system declared, Vince began to poach the best wrestling talent from all over the country. He not only offered the stars more money, but also the opportunity to wrestle on a much bigger stage.
Some of the huge names that joined the then WWF during those years included names like Ricky the Dragon Steamboat, Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff, The Junkyard Dog, The Iron Sheik, Superfly Jimmy Snuka, and Greg the Hammer Valentine.
The WWF Begins To Air On National Television
The move to get his superstars on television was, at first, a disaster for Vince McMahon. The organization first tried to take over WCW’s TBS television spot and this was a fiasco, as that promotion’s fans did not care for the WWF brand of wrestling.
The company, however, soon settled in with the USA network where the Rock and Wrestling concept captured a large audience. The WWF later began to air on NBC where it introduced a much larger audience to the brand.
Hogan Drives The Company’s Popularity
Other companies certainly had their own superstars. The WCW had Ric Flair who wowed crowds with his incredible charisma and technical wrestling ability. They also had the Von Erich brothers, who were muscular, good looking, and heroic.
But the WWF had the biggest superstar of all in Hulk Hogan. Larger than life in almost every way, Hogan captured the hearts of millions of wrestling viewers. Hogan could be seen all over the place, whether it was via a cameo in Rocky III or appearances on late-night television.
The First Grandaddy Of Them All
The idea of having a supercard where all your biggest stars wrestle the same night was not an idea that Vince McMahon created. The idea of holding it at a major arena and putting it on pay-per-view was.
When the WWF held the first Wrestlemania in 1985, it was a gamble that could have cost them everything. Fortunately, appearances by Muhammad Ali and Liberace ensured that the event was a huge hit.
Wrestlemania III Is An Absolute Monster
The WWF continued to grow in popularity up until 1987, when Wrestlemania III was held in Detroit. The event featured a long-awaited match between megastar Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, who had never been defeated in the United States.
Wrestlemania III was an absolute blockbuster at the attendance at the Pontiac Superdome was recorded at over 93,000. The match, won by Hogan, was later broadcast on NBC television where it was watched by over 33 million people.
Monday Night Raw Debuts
In the late 1980s, the WWE started to experience a dip in popularity. Established stars like Andre the Giant retired and Hogan began to branch out into TV and movies. The promotion was now built on the backs of stars like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart.
In order to promote these new stars, the WWF began to broadcast a new show on Monday nights. Monday Night Raw was an immediate hit for the network and helped introduce new viewers to their superstars.
The Most Serious Competition Yet
The WWF had long existed without facing strong competition. The WCW was always around, but that seemed to be more for southern fans than anything else. Things changed when WCW owner Ted Turner signed former WWF employee Eric Bischoff.
Bischoff immediately began offering huge sums of money to some of the WWF’s biggest stars and was able to bring over Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. He scored his biggest win when Hulk Hogan signed with the rival organization.
The Attitude Era Turns The Tide
For nearly a year and a half, the upstart WCW got higher ratings for its show Monday Nitro than the WWF got for Monday Night Raw. The WCW’s talent pillage of the WWF continued with talent like Randy Savage and Bret Hart.
McMahon fought back by using the wrestlers he still had. Backed by stars like Shawn Michaels and HHH, the WWF began to televise a raunchier show with attractive female talent and sexualized themes. The strategy worked and McMahon worked his way back on top.
Vince Gets Involved
In the late 1990s, McMahon and his writers figured out a new storyline that would end up being a huge success. Figuring that most of his audience didn’t like the people they worked for, he became the boss from hell.
McMahon became intimately involved in the company’s television shows and pay-per-view events. He even wrestled in a number of programs. The audience loved seeing McMahon get his comeuppance from guys like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Rock And Austin Go Global
One of the most difficult things for any wrestling promotion is consistently breaking new stars. In the mid to late 1990s, though, the WWF struck gold twice with The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The wrestlers were both cool and anti-authoritarian and carried the company for years. Whether they were battling each other or teaming up, the audience couldn’t take their eyes off them. Austin later retired due to injuries while Rock went on to be a movie megastar.
Vince Wins The War
While they went head-to-head for years, the WWE (the name was changed due to a lawsuit from the World Wildlife Federation) eventually pulled ahead of the WCW. In March of 2001, McMahon purchased the WCW from Ted Turner.
Since he bought out his last true competitor, McMahon has largely had a monopoly on American wrestling. While Indy promotions still exist and companies like TNA and AEW are well-regarded, when most people think of wrestling, they think of the WWE.
Wrestlemania Is Still King
The first Wrestlemania was a wild idea that almost bankrupted the company. After the first success, though, it has become the premier event in all of professional wrestling. And seemingly every year, a new record is broken.
Wrestlemania, now a global event, draws fans from all over the world. And those fans really pack the seats. The event typically draws anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 fans to whatever city it is hosted in. Millions more watch at home.