Friday, some unexpected news broke – Vince McMahon, the chairman and once-CEO of WWE, would be retiring from the wrestling company that is his life’s work at the age of 77. A lot of media outlets framed this as unexpected and fell over themselves to recount much of his legacy, rather than the peculiar circumstances that led to this announcement.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was stated as fact in nearly every WWE-produced documentary, series, and special that Vince would die in the role of head of WWE – if he ever even died at all, as was so often jokingly appended to these statements. Vince is, for better and quite often for worse, the man around whom WWE orbits. The 9+ hours of weekly television the company is responsible for producing is often said to be a show for one – that everything is written for Vince, and oftentimes by Vince himself.
McMahon is out of the company that made him a star and made him worth knowing for a dark reason that has never really been a secret, but has recently exploded in the mainstream – he’s a womanizer who often abuses his power, using his position to sleep with women who work for him and then paying hush money to keep things quiet. His legacy includes a case against the US government in the 90s for setting up a system for wrestlers to gain access to illegal steroids and then encouraging those wrestlers to take them, sexual harassment and abuse of women talent including WWE’s first female referee Rita Chatterton, covering for crimes committed by his favored employees like the abuse of ring boys by backstage staff including Pat Patterson and Terry Garvin and the murder of Jimmy Snuka’s girlfriend, and just generally being an awful, trash-tier human being. Stories about Vince are told that make him sound like an alien – like how he didn’t know what a burrito was, that he looked down on people who sneeze, and the most believable – that he genuinely did not keep up with pop culture outside of his own wrestling company, to the extent that he missed the boat on purchasing UFC at his son’s recommendation (before they exploded to be one of the most valuable brands in the world).
In the heydays of WWE in the 80s and very early 90s, and the late 90s into early 2000s of the “Attitude Era,” McMahon ran a pretty good wrestling company. In the 80s, he was ruthless, signing up the AWA’s top star Hulk Hogan and leveraging him to take the then-regional WWF into national and international prominence (alongside a lot of bluffing and bluster that paid off when dealing with other regional promoters), and in 1998, McMahon responded well to changing market conditions and brought the then-WWF from neon children’s attraction into gritty prime-time soap opera, appealing to a generation who had been watching the competing WCW as they used the former top stars of WWF in a compelling storyline with the former WWF stars as the “New World Order.” Most of the time, however, Vince was writing and supervising a show that appeals to the kind of misogynistic, sheltered, and malicious person he is. As a wrestling fan, both many of my greatest memories of what the artform can be and my lowest moments of being ashamed to even watch come from the mind of Vince McMahon.
Vince leaving comes as a shock to the world because even with recent headlines from the Wall Street Journal, Variety, and other major mainstream publications, McMahon was uniquely sheltered and set up to be insulated from fallout. WWE is a publicly-traded company, however the stock owned by the McMahon family has substantially more voting power, such that Vince himself alone controls a majority of the voting rights on the board. The company’s own position on Vince is that the show cannot happen without him, as he was not just an executive and chairman of the board but was also the head of creative and basically had complete control over what made air, in spite of an entire team of writers and the creative input of the performers themselves. Wrestling as a form once relied on talented performers who could handle the in-ring performance both athletically but also intellectually – to be able to have a match and then talk about that match or upcoming matches in an improvisational manner, with only a basic set of bullet points to work from. McMahon changed that in WWE, hiring Hollywood writers (most famously, Freddie Prinze Jr spent a longish stint as writer in WWE in the late 2000s), scripting promos for wrestlers, and creating an insulated setting for WWE with certain jargon (fans are the “WWE Universe,” championships cannot be called “belts” or “straps”, and you never say hospital, only “local medical facility”).
WWE has continued to succeed largely in spite of itself and its own operation, because while Vince’s creative led the company into the lowest ratings it has ever seen for its flagship weekly TV shows, the company emerged from the Monday Night Wars of the late nineties as the sole survivor, buying WCW’s assets and tape libraries and doing the same with distant third ECW. For nearly two decades, there was no competitive US-based wrestling promotion, with only increased viewership of New Japan Pro Wrestling in the US and the US-based Ring of Honor getting close, until the foundation of All Elite Wrestling (AEW) in 2019. WWE’s current era is defined by a lack of transcendent stars in the vein of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or The Rock, because to Vince, WWE is “the brand” and the company has made every effort to keep itself above any one star performer, such that it is a minor miracle that John Cena escaped the WWE orbit into the mainstream with movie and TV roles, and it seems somewhat less likely that current WWE goldenboy Roman Reigns will be capable of doing the same, after a single role in Hobbs and Shaw brokered by his cousin The Rock.
Vince is a complicated figure to most wrestling fans, myself included. On the one hand, there are a lot of TV hours I’ve watched over my life that I have enjoyed because of McMahon. Wrestling as a business is full of figures that so often can only be enjoyed by separating the art they create from the person behind it, and Vince McMahon is absolutely one of those figures. From just what he’s put forward on television, you could make a compelling case against him, but once you hear the stories behind the scenes, he becomes a very easy figure to have deep disgust and contempt for. A fair number of wrestlers will (and currently are) singing his praises as the person who most “made” them, who gave them a stage and enabled them to have the career they do. At the same time, Vince is, unquestionably, a craven asshole with little redeeming qualities, in spite of any positive value his company and work within it provided.
A lot of wrestling fans have found themselves wandering out of the WWE ecosystem over the years, myself included. WWE as a show is a stale product that is defined by a formula well over 20 years old at this point, built by Vince and company at their lowest point, when WCW looked poised to take them down, and a formula that has not been updated since. The show has little continuity and little ability to trust the intelligence of the average viewer – in a 3 hour episode of Monday Night Raw, it is not uncommon to see less than 30 minutes of actual wrestling while the rest of the show is in-ring and backstage promos and, most annoyingly, recaps of things that already happened during that same episode. Smackdown, itself a 2 hour show, often features even less wrestling, and recent weeks have even had wrestlers enter for a match but have nearly 30 minutes pass from entrance to the actual match start! The lack of desire to build marquee performers makes much of the show interchangeable – no offense to the performers themselves, who are among the most talented athletes and performers ever to be in the business as of this moment, but they are often shortchanged their full potential in favor of propping up the company.
Vince McMahon has often been the reason many fans have tuned out, though. Over the last handful of years in particular, Vince was consolidating control over his own company, pushing his son out (who had left in 2009 and only recently returned in 2016), pushing his daughter out via an extended leave of absence, and pushing his son-in-law, former wrestler Triple H, out of his role in creative and as lead of developmental promotion NXT. In exchange for these moves, he brought back a cadre of sniveling yes-men like creative head Bruce Prichard and head of talent relations John Laurinaitis (himself just recently being pushed out after being named as involved in the current hush-money scandal in the initial round of reporting).
Until Friday’s news, it seemed a given that Vince was going to further strangle the WWE into creative bankruptcy, which he would be allowed to do both as majority voting shareholder but also due to the financial results the company has putting up. Some of Vince’s worst stories and behaviors were reported and known in the last 20 years, when many wrestling fans would have few viable means to vote with their wallet other than to simply stop watching, a situation that has only been remedied in the last several years with a number of new alternatives and the rise of streaming services like IWTV and FITE giving rise to independent promotion video content, alongside the growing US presence of Japanese wrestling and the introduction of US-based major promotions with prime-time TV deals, like AEW and before it, TNA. For many fans, WWE was the only choice, and so a large number of wrestling fans did still stick with them, but the company did see declines anyways, going from their Attitude Era peak of nearly 6 million weekly watchers to a current number of just under 2 million, with main competition AEW picking up around 1 million viewers a week and the remaining millions of viewers having simply stopped watching (not even accounting for the 3-6 million weekly viewers that watched WCW during the late nineties!). The wrestling business has been left objectively worse for the tight control that was given to McMahon in 2001, when his stranglehold over wrestling was codified with his purchases of WCW and ECW.
As a fan, I am glad to see McMahon ousted for many reasons. Top of that list is that it is the closest he’ll ever get to justice for his many misdeeds. He’s a wealthy man who has escaped so much of the punishment he rightfully deserves simply by having money, including murder coverups, rape coverups, his own sexual misconduct, and the vile way he’s noted as having treated many employees, performers, and others. In the US in particular, no actual punishment tends to exist for people at that level of wealth, and so seeing him have to endure “retiring” and knowing that he’d like to be working instead is the best we can get and hope for (there’s some rumblings this morning that WWE’s amended 8-K forms could open the company and Vince up to additional scrutiny and legal consequence, but I am not a lawyer and I’m not going to touch analyzing that claim publicly any deeper than simply acknowledging it).
Secondly, McMahon being pushed out sets the stage for a new era in WWE, which might make the show good. As a fan, an agonizing truth of wrestling is knowing that there are a lot of performers that aspire to be in WWE, to headline Wrestlemania, because those brands and names hold value and significance, even as alternatives rise in prominence – and yet knowing that once those performers make it to WWE, many will be held down and undervalued by McMahon’s writing and creative with no real way around it. With McMahon out, there is a chance for a lot of talented performers to make a name for themselves. Triple H has returned to his role in creative and at the helm of NXT, and the type of wrestler he would sign and the types of presentation and storylines he would oversee were way better fits for the modern market, so there is some reason to hope. In fact, a lot of the WWE defections to AEW were Triple H-signed performers who excelled on the NXT stage in WWE only to flounder once Vince was writing their characters. Even if very little improves, it will still open the door to a different style of WWE production, and given that the company has been on the same stale formula for over 20 years, one that is clearly breaking down under pressure, change itself is likely to be good.
Thirdly, it opens an interesting dynamic where there can be more give and take to the wrestling business. Right now, the business is in effective stasis because WWE has a template superstar (tall, conventionally handsome, built) and anyone who is an exceptional wrestler that doesn’t fit that template or has a strong character built on the indie wrestling scene basically has to choose forfeiting that investment in their career to go to WWE and be subject to their whims, or go to a myriad of other promotions, only one of which has reliable international television availability and profile (AEW) while the rest are varying degrees of obscurity – you might be paid well, but a big part of financial security as a pro wrestler is building a name for later, so you can do convention circuits and signing events, meet and greets, and have an established portfolio as a performer to be able to branch into acting, live commentary on a wrestling show, or a non-wrestling role like manager or on-air authority figure once your in-ring career has ended, all of which is harder to do when you are less-known. The indie scene is thriving right now, and it is possible to make a pretty penny if you’re a merciless self-starter – but the best financial security is still with a major promotion, and right now that only leaves AEW if you have a character and investment in yourself from the indies.
However, in the end, there is a real question about how much changes at WWE with Vince out of his roles in the company leadership. The company’s CEO spot is being taken by a pairing of Vince’s daughter Stephanie (whose support for her father has been sometimes hilariously over the top, like comparing his trial with the US government to September 11th) and new-ish executive Nick Khan, who came to WWE last year from Barstool Sports and is a ruthless numbers guy who has pushed for the releases of over 100 talent since coming to WWE. In the creative role, while Triple H heads the team, Vince lackey Bruce Prichard remains high up the totem pole, and in production, Vince lackey Kevin Dunn (whose opinions on women’s wrestling and specific performers would have seen WWE miss one of their biggest current stars in Becky Lynch because she committed the cardinal sin of having an Irish accent, the horror) remains atop the mountain there, although he is a noted enemy of the Stephanie/Triple H leadership and that may not remain the case for long. For as many reasons as there are to hope for better, the company is locked in institutional inertia as the company has been succeeding so long in spite of the myriad of things most fans dislike about it.
And of course, Vince still remains the main voting shareholder, the one with the most institutional power to shape the company from outside as an investor, which means that even speculating on modest improvements is perhaps too far ahead of reality, where it remains somewhat likely that the product remains stale and in stasis to appeal to Vince and the cronies/family of Vince that remain in leadership. Nick Khan is the biggest wildcard there, as he has made huge moves that were unconventional within WWE by pushing for more stadium events, more aggressive chasing of the balance sheets and increased bottomline, and that may make him stand out for the investor set, including Vince, who has shown a lack of family loyalty if he thinks it better serves his own interests or that of his truest baby, the WWE itself.
On the markets, WWE stock is up massively today because a fair number of investors believe that Vince being out makes the company more likely to be an acquisition target. To be fair, WWE has a lot of assets that would make it worth acquiring for a media company – it produces around 9 hours of original television content weekly, is one of the largest channels on YouTube, has a streaming service internationally with a fairly large install base, and thousands of hours of back catalog content that includes a ton of wrestling history both within and outside of the WWE promotional banner – a catalog that was worth $1 billion dollars over 5 years to streaming service Peacock, who markets WWE as one of the biggest reasons to subscribe to their streaming platform (besides reruns of the US version of The Office, of course). WWE’s current television deals in the US alone are worth nearly 2 billion dollars over 5 years and place both Raw and Smackdown as marquee programming for their respective networks, and the company is gaining internationally too – with their UK deal being sold most recently to BT Sport for a pretty penny.
In the end, Vince McMahon leaving WWE as an employee is an interesting event that most predicted would never happen willingly – and some indications are that this was more of an eviction from his roles than a retirement, mostly due to the increased scrutiny brought to the company. His legacy is complicated but most fans I know are happy to see him go – both for what it means to WWE as a brand and show, but also because it represents some form of consequences at last for a man who has brandished his power over others for far too long in far too many ways with no prior repercussions. Yet it also feels empty to celebrate his “retirement” because there is a trend of actual victims being left without justice and because it seems like he will still have power and influence from the outside. A hollow victory won against a hollow shell of a man, which is, I guess, somewhat poetic.