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We’ve covered a lot of entrepreneurs so far, and there are more coming, but few of them are as dominant in their industries as WWE owner Vince McMahon. Few of them are as divisive, either; people tend to admire Vince’s vision, drive, and success in a business that was entirely regional until he brought it to national prominence, or they hate his end runs around the various state athletic commissions, the fact that his employees are “independent contractors” who can’t accept outside bookings, and his failed ventures outside of wrestling (the World Bodybuilding League, the Xtreme Football League, his clueless wife’s Senate campaigns).
But one thing everyone can agree on is that no one else in Vince’s tax bracket has gotten his buttocks polished with a car buffer on national television before. Or since, for that matter.
But before Vince McMahon was the Steinbrenner of pro wrestling, he was Vinnie Lupton, a skinny, dyslexic kid who lived in Pinehurst, North Carolina with his mother and her numerous abusive boyfriends. His father, Vince McMahon Sr., was the promoter for the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which ran wrestling events throughout the Northeast (back then, there were numerous regional wrestling promotions that ran shows in set areas, similar to sales territories, and worked off a gentleman’s agreement to not directly compete with one another).
When Vince Jr. was 12, he met Vince Sr., and started shadowing his father, learning how to promote sports events. After graduating from college, Vince started working for his father, who was slow to accept his son’s desire to get into the wrestling business. Nonetheless, Vince proved useful, helping his father triple their company’s TV syndication and shortening the name of the company to the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF. Most people still call it that, in fact (the name change to WWE came after they lost a court battle with the World Wildlife Fund ten years ago).
While Vince took some missteps during this time – the 1976 Muhammad Ali/Antonio Inoki match was so bad that the fans in Tokyo rioted out of sheer boredom – it was still clear that he was the guy to take over once his dad retired. Vince went one step above that (or below it, depending on who you ask) and got his father’s biggest stockholders to help him seize the company from Vince Sr. in 1982.
Vince Jr., you see, had a vision. Cable TV was killing the territories, which were based on a regional television model, and there was an opening in the marketplace for a wrestling company that could promote and tour nationally, incorporate celebrity involvement into their presentation, and also merchandise its wrestlers. And since his base of operations was New York, he had plenty of media connections that other promoters didn’t.
Vince also had Hulk Hogan, who had most of his hair and all of his charisma back in 1984, to lead the charge as the WWF began running events all over the country. This was met with some grumbling from other promoters (some of whom threatened to kill both Vince and Hulk for intruding on their territories), but the WWF had too much momentum to be stopped. By the late 1980s, they were the undisputed leader of the pro wrestling industry, and they still are today.
The reason for this, more than anything else, is that Vince is a confrontational workaholic whose entire life is dedicated to his company. While there are some drawbacks to this approach, it’s also true that his goal-oriented hyperfocus is what turned his company into a publicly-traded one with multiple revenue sources, including film and music production. He was also willing to risk his financial well-being (the first Wrestlemania was a huge gamble, and McMahon financed it on then-unfounded promises of what it would deliver) and his life (all those guys who wanted to kill him) to accomplish what he thought he could.
Actually, the best explanation of what Vince is like, and how he conducts business, comes from former wrestling promoter and current MMA enthusiast Paul Heyman. I’ll leave you with that, mainly because I can’t find that ass buffing video. Good lord, was that funny.