Earlier this week, “Vince McMahon” trended on Twitter. Before I found out why, I felt a weird mix of excitement and anxiety. Was the whole of the wrestling world changing? Was he he stepping down? Sick? Involved, beyond the obvious way in which he’s involved, in some Trump-related scandal?
No such luck. Instead, WWE fans were focusing on McMahon the television writer and personality, the angles and storylines he’s written and participated in since his company’s Attitude Era shifted wrestling’s gaze from the child friendly product of the 1980s to the more “mature” content of the late 90s to the 2000s.
It’s horrifying stuff, of course, rife with misogyny, racism, and homophobia, but at the center of it is McMahon’s own wrestling persona, Mr. McMahon, whose constant antagonism of his employees ranged from the mundane cruelty of booking unfair matches to outlandish abuses like forcing Trish Stratus to strip to her underwear and bark like a dog in front of millions of people.
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What I noticed in watching these clips was that hardly any of them were from before the year 2001, the year the Attitude Era effectively ended and the Ruthless Aggression era, which ran until 2007, began. Vince McMahon’s television persona as we know it debuting with his famous “Bret Screwed Bret” promo after the Montreal Screwjob in 1997, that gives us a solid 10 years of Vince McMahon as a heel, and as one of the main characters of his television programming.
You can argue that Vince McMahon is the best character in the history of WWE. You can also argue that Vince McMahon is the worst character in the history of WWE. It breaks down like this, I think: From late 1997 to early 2001, Vince McMahon is on another planet as a heel, completely untouchable in his ability to inspire hatred. From early 2001 to 2007, he’s an outlandish cartoon whose ability to make people hate him in kayfabe required an oppressive cruelty that was created in bad faith and is, yes, completely irredeemable.
The Origins of Mr. McMahon
To examine Mr. McMahon the character, one has to begin at Survivor Series 1997, the Montreal Screwjob. Since it’s been told and retold in and out of kayfabe hundreds of times, I’ll be brief. In 1997, the World Wrestling Federation was struggling financially, coming out of one of the worst periods in its history. To cut costs, Vince McMahon encouraged Bret Hart to end his 20-year WWF contract 19 years early and seek out a deal with WCW, which he did.
But there was a problem: Hart was the WWF Champion, and his contract with the WWF was set to expire just after Survivor Series, where he was scheduled to wrestle Shawn Michaels. The two men, previously friends, were bitter enemies, and Hart refused to lose the title to him. After much back and forth, proposed idea after proposed idea, it was agreed that Hart would either forfeit the belt on Raw the next night or lose the championship cleanly to someone else, Mankind or Steve Austin or someone of that ilk.
That didn’t happen, obviously. During the match, Michaels put Hart in his own move, the Sharpshooter, and Vince McMahon ordered referee Earl Hebner to call for the bell, awarding Michaels the title in one of the most surreal moments in wrestling history. Though Hart’s signing with WCW was McMahon’s idea, and while Hart was the kind of man so terminally honest that he took McMahon at his word and allowed himself to be put in a submission hold during the match, McMahon did have reason to distrust WCW, given that WWF Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze’s defection to WCW saw her drop the championship into a trash can live on Nitro.
At the time, McMahon was still an announcer on WWF television, though his role as owner of the company was acknowledged in 1996. The Montreal Screwjob made it impossible for McMahon to function in an on-air role that required neutrality. So on the Raw after Survivor Series, a two part interview of McMahon conducted by Jim Ross aired where he addressed the controversy. It ended with one of the most famous lines of its era, maybe in wrestling: “I truly believe that Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart.” And with that, Mr. McMahon was born.
Vince McMahon, Greatest WWE Character of All Time
To paraphrase Mick Foley, the best wrestling heels do what they do because they believe to their core that their actions are justifiable. Casting aside the real life labor issues at the heart of the Montreal Screwjob, no character in wrestling has had quite the motivation Mr. McMahon did, which was to protect the image and legacy of the World Wrestling Federation. He was obsessed. He was paranoid. He was spiteful. And he had a natural enemy in “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Pushed out of the commentary booth and into the spotlight, McMahon assumed the role of matchmaker. One of his first big time deals in that role was securing the services of Mike Tyson as a guest at WrestleMania XV, an announcement that was promptly crashed by Austin, who shoved and brawled with Tyson as McMahon desperately cried “You ruined it!”
This was the beginning of the feud between Austin and McMahon, though it had been seeded in 1996, as McMahon desperately wondered why fans were taking to a the violent, foul-mouthed King of the Ring winner. When Austin was injured in 1997, McMahon pled with him to stay out of action for his own good and got a Stone Cold Stunner for his concern. When he demanded he forfeit the Intercontinental Championship to The Rock later that year, he threw the title into a river.
So you take McMahon’s real life paranoia going into Survivor Series 1997, his willingness to legitimately screw Bret Hart, and Austin’s constant antagonism of McMahon in one hand, and Austin’s victory in the Royal Rumble and guaranteed title shot in the other. He ruins the Tyson announcement. His momentum is a runaway train. Why would Vince McMahon want someone like Austin as the face of his company? In the build to WrestleMania XV, he begins lobbying against it. In the aftermath, he does his damndest to take Austin’s championship away.
As complex as it looks going from Raw to Raw in 1998, the story is simplicity itself. It makes sense. Here’s a guy creating the glass ceiling. Here’s a guy trying to smash it. If the best wrestling heels believe their actions are justified, and if that heel’s mission is to protect the image of his company, you can understand McMahon’s motive. It’s wrong, obviously, but his belief that Steve Austin had to be stopped was nakedly honest. You could hear it in his voice. You could see it in his body language. It felt real, and it worked.
The Austin vs. McMahon angle was a monster, so successful that it eventually ended WCW’s streak of Monday night ratings victories, delivering the WWF from the brink of disaster to heights it hadn’t reached since the peak of Hulkamania. It was perfect, as Austin was everything the late 1990s wrestling audience wanted, and McMahon was a corporate suit who didn’t care. His dislike of Austin spiraled into outright hatred, and that hatred for Austin caused him to openly resent his audience, who in turn delighted in calling him an asshole.
It’s hard not to compare the two to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. For all of McMahon’s schemes—from turning Mick Foley heel by whispering in his ear about being his hand chosen champion to his playing Undertaker and Kane against each other in an effort to get one of them to beat Austin to forming the Corporation and anointing The Rock as his champion to revealing himself as the Higher Power of the Ministry of Darkness—there was no low McMahon would not stoop to, nobody he wouldn’t happily double cross, no plan too asinine for him, so long as he got one over on Stone Cold.
But Steve Austin was too clever. He’d ride to the ring on a zamboni or hose McMahon down with beer or disguise himself as a doctor to clock his boss with a bedpan, coming just shy of looking into the camera and asking “Ain’t I a stinker?” before the end of the show. Their dynamic is one that is unique in professional wrestling, something WWE is hardly alone in trying and failing to replicate over the past 20 years.
Why is McMahon the best character in WWE history and not Austin? Because McMahon is the moving part in all of it. Austin moved from feud to feud, but he was essentially a static character, remaining unchanged until his WrestleMania X7 handshake with McMahon, who was, at that point, a big enough heel to turn wrestling’s most beloved face heel in his home state. As Steve Austin’s foil, it was Vince McMahon’s task as a character to keep Austin fresh. As a non-wrestler, McMahon functioned both as a matchmaker and a manager. His endorsement of Foley’s Dude Love character elevated him to the main event on his word. His aligning with The Rock was the final piece of the puzzle between him and global superstardom.
With the exception of allowing The Undertaker to abduct his daughter and attempt a satanic wedding ritual with her, everything McMahon did made sense because Steve Austin was ruining his life at every turn. Did it matter that the WWF was making money hand over fist with Austin as champion? Of course not—it was his company, and he knew what was best for it. It’s a rare thing, as a television viewer, to be told that to your face. It’s even more rare that one has an opportunity to call the man telling you that an asshole.
Vince McMahon, Worst WWE Character of All Time
The problem is, it only worked when he was the foil and not the centerpiece. In late 1999, Austin was written off of television due to his history of neck injuries, staying off television for 10 months. By late 2000, cracks in the Vince McMahon character were showing.
He abused his wife to the point that she had a nervous breakdown, allowing him to keep her sedated against her will. He began an extramarital affair with Trish Stratus and feuded with his son. This convoluted state of affairs led to his WrestleMania X7 match Shane McMahon, which climaxed with Linda rising up from her wheelchair to kicking her husband in the balls. Rather than signal the end of the Mr. McMahon character at his worst, it was merely a hint of how bad the character could be.
Over time, WWE lost Austin, Rock, and Foley. Triple H never quite reached their level, and big name signings from WCW never quite fit in. With his roster in a rebuilding phase, Vince McMahon was left as WWE’s biggest draw. TNN, Raw’s home at the time, rebranded itself as Spike TV, a network aimed at men the same way The Man Show was aimed at men, a toxic brew of edgelord humor and cheap sexuality that WWE rose to meet. And McMahon was often at the center of his company’s juvenile ideas of sex, violence, and comedy.
This is where your “Vince McMahon isn’t seeing the pearly gates” material comes from, whether it’s the misogyny, homophobia, and racism of the Ruthless Aggression era or the evolution of the Mr. McMahon character himself. The list of offenses Mr. McMahon the character committed during this time is extremely long. He feuded with Zach Gowen, an amputee wrestler, making fun of his disability and cheating to win an arm wrestling match against him. He booked himself in an I Quit match against his daughter. He officially holds a win over god. In the build to the Battle of the Billionaires match against Donald Trump, he forcibly shaved the head of a mentally disabled character after having him beat to a pulp. These are the major angles he put his character through, which doesn’t cover things like him dropping the n-word in an attempt to relate to Newberry, Massachusetts’ own John Cena.
It’s bad storytelling, which was compounded by the fact that McMahon’s body language and vocal affectation had gone from “swaggering CEO” to “Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? after he got crushed.” Here’s the thing: The point of a heel is to give the audience someone to hate. With rare exception, the Mr. McMahon character has been detestable since day one. But there’s the kind of hatable where you want to see him get his comeuppance, and the kind of hatable where you legitimately want to take a swing at him, and Vince McMahon has been the “I’d get my ass kicked, but man would that first punch feel great” kind of hatable for 20 years.
It’s amazing, in a way, because McMahon simultaneously is wrestling but is trapped by its conventions. When Hulk Hogan had nothing left to do as a babyface, there was the nWo. When Batista’s heroism was met with indifference, he started wearing tight jeans and hurling his friend Rey Mysterio into ring posts. Eddie Guerrero, whose 2004 championship win is one of the most gutwrenching babyface triumphs in company history, was easily WWE’s biggest heel by mid-2005. Unless you’re John Cena or Rey Mysterio, there’s a limit to how far a wrestler can go as a face or a heel. The nice thing about wrestling is that once that limit is reached, you switch teams and explore all of the possibilities afforded by that switch.
No such switch was possible for Vince McMahon. Even if you ignore the details of his personal life, his character begins with one of WWE’s most beloved talents getting jobbed out unceremoniously. He was the antagonist of one of the biggest babyfaces in the history of wrestling. He didn’t necessarily need Steve Austin or The Rock to keep up the act, but he did need someone who was as likable as he was hatable, someone arguably on his level as a star, and they only kind of tested out McMahon/Cena.
The Mr. McMahon that is the worst character in WWE history is the worst because instead of bringing people up to the level of Steve Austin as his proxy, he was bringing people up to his level, which required an absurd commitment to human misery, and there was never any payoff beyond his losing a match or his hair or having sewage dumped on him. The character was incapable of making stars and, unlike the majority of wrestlers as over as Mr. McMahon was, could never resolve, no matter how many limos blew up or girders fell on him.
This isn’t an excuse for what is, apart from the often fantastic wrestling, some of the worst television in WWE’s history, but it is, I think, an able explanation for what turned such a reliably great character into one that’s barely tolerable at best. More than forgetting what made the character good or a lack of imagination, the issue with the Mr. McMahon character is this: Somewhere in the early 2000s, WWE creative forgot that a CEO doesn’t need to act like Satan himself in order to be hated, he just needs to be a CEO. Satan, after all, is just an abstraction. A CEO? That’s concrete. Detestable. The kind of person you can embarrass. The kind of person you want to see embarrassed. Perfect, in other words, until he’s ruined.