The Shady Side Of Vince McMahon

The following article contains references to sexual assault, racism, ableism, and suicide.

Love him or hate him, Vince McMahon is a true innovator. As Chairman of the WWE, he was undoubtedly the architect behind the boom in professional wrestling's popularity, taking a regional promotion born out of the traveling carnival era to a multibillion dollar industry watched by fans all around the world. Thanks to McMahon and the WWE, we have the likes of The Rock, now laying the smackdown on the big screen, and John Cena, who we still can't see

McMahon came to public prominence first as an announcer on WWE programming in the 1980s, before transitioning to an exaggerated fictional version of himself. On screen, he portrayed the villainous Mr. McMahon, someone who would think nothing of forcing his employees to figuratively and literally kiss his rear end, wrestling his own daughter in a match, and creeping on young female athletes. But to tweak the old adage, truth is shadier than fiction. And the more one delves into the business and personal life of McMahon, it becomes resoundingly clear that his onscreen villainy may not stray too far from his true character.

Following his sudden retirement as CEO of the WWE, McMahon has faced sordid accusations of misconduct against former employees. But that's merely the tip of the turnbuckle. Throughout the years, there's seemingly been no end to the Chairman's dodgy deals and corrupt capers. One thing is for certain: McMahon has never been afraid to embrace his inner heel. This is the shady side of Vince McMahon.

Vince McMahon broke a promise to his father

Vince McMahon's career began with shady dealings. His father, Vincent McMahon Sr., founded the WWE (then known as Capitol Wrestling Corporation) in 1963, per Sports Illustrated. When McMahon Jr. took over the company in 1982, he did so under false pretences, promising his dad that he wouldn't expand beyond its localized territory and would promote nationally, per Talk Sport. But soon enough, he broke his promise and pried talent away from other territories, most notably the AWA (American Wrestling Association), from which he plucked the likes of Hulk Hogan and Jesse "The Body" Ventura.

And McMahon Jr. is the first to admit that his cutthroat tactics wouldn't exactly have pleased his father. "When I bought my dad's business he had no idea what my intentions were... My dad would've never sold me the business had he known the aggressive stance I would take," he told Off The Record.

Accordingly, McMahon ushered in the pro wrestling boom in the 1980s, popularizing the concept of sports entertainment as opposed to professional wrestling and, yes, creating a lucrative empire. "In the old days, there were wrestling fiefdoms all over the country, each with its own little lord in charge," he said in Sports Illustrated in 1991. "Each little lord respected the rights of his neighboring little lord. No takeovers or raids were allowed... If I hadn't bought out my dad, there would still be 30 of them... I, of course, had no allegiance to those little lords."

Mocking Jim Ross' Bell's palsy

From throwing nuts at his employees to body shaming wrestlers, Vince McMahon has long faced accusations of bullying. Commentator Jim Ross has been one of McMahon's targets for decades. In 2001, for instance, McMahon humiliated Ross on television by making him kiss his backside. But perhaps McMahon's most pernicious treatment of Ross manifested in outright ableism.

In 1994, Ross was diagnosed with Bell's palsy, a condition that causes episodes of facial paralysis, and was let go soon after. "Let me tell you how warm-hearted Mr. Vince McMahon is," he said on a 1996 episode of RAW. Mr. McMahon called me into his office ... and he fired my a**." As Ross later told SB Nation, his firing came about after some tension behind the scenes. He also said he had no interest in pursuing a wrongful termination suit. 

On his podcast, former WWE agent Jim Cornette divulged that the mocking of Ross' affliction originated from the writers' room and McMahon subsequently exacerbated the bullying. "Vince will just do horrible things in public to his employees and laugh at them because, you know, he's got that sense of humor," Cornette said. The Bell's palsy ridicule continued into 2012 and played out on television — not just in the writers' room. On air, McMahon mimicked Ross' facial paralysis. This led to a furious response from former WCW announcer Mark Madden, who tweeted, "Wut a scumbag, pure& simple."

The Montreal Screwjob

In 1997, Champion Bret Hart was scheduled to defend his title against his real-life rival Shawn Michaels at the Survivor Series pay-per-view in Montreal, per Pro Wrestling Stories. In a moment captured in the documentary "Wrestling With Shadows," Hart, who was due to leave for WWE's main competitor World Championship Wrestling, wore a wire in his meeting with Vince McMahon the day of the event. Hart wanted to relinquish the title the next night, citing a "reasonable creative control" clause in his contract, as a means to protect the integrity of his character in the last 30 days of his employment should he depart the company, per Pro Wrestling Insider. McMahon seemingly acquiesced to Hart and agreed the match would end in a disqualification via a run-in.

McMahon, however, had secretly conspired with Shawn Michaels and match referee Earl Hebner to cheat Hart out of the title, per Sports Illustrated. With Michaels securing Hart in his own signature move, the Sharpshooter, Hebner demanded that the timekeeper ring the bell, declaring Hart had submitted, despite the fact that he clearly hadn't tapped.

"I rattled off on every finger about ten different lies he'd told me in the last week. Vince told me, 'What I did to you today won't hurt you. You'll still get all the money you're supposed to get from WCW,'" Hart told Sports Illustrated. But Vince being Vince, he doubled down on his decision. In a now infamous interview, he claimed, "Bret screwed Bret... I have no sympathy whatsoever."

The objectification of women wrestlers

In the Attitude Era of the '90s and 2000s, the Vince McMahon-helmed WWE relied heavily on sexualizing its female wrestlers. As argued in the book "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle," "Women were presented purely as sex objects, competing in bra and panties matches or other novelty matches designed to show as much skin as possible." Though WWE has moved away from this content, it was a source of controversy for many years.

Trish Stratus, one of the most esteemed wrestlers of the era, claimed Vince made her act like a dog on television. "Vince pitched the angle to me like this — 'so we're going to have this angle where you are barking like a dog and get really humiliated, and basically hit rock bottom,'" she explained at a wrestling convention, as reported by Metro. When Bob Costas called this out in an interview with Vince (via The New York Times), the WWE chairman gave a fiery response. Meanwhile, Mickie James told Gaw TV in 2021 that she blames the company's sexism and ageism for her firing.

That said, the WWE has made considerable strides in the past few years to improve the representation of women performers as legitimate athletes and not mere eye candy or objects of humiliation. Accordingly, as Stephanie McMahon told Digital Spy in 2021, there's been a major behind-the-scenes push to bring in more women writers. "In a male-dominated writers room, a female perspective was needed," former WWE writer Nico Gendron wrote for Birth.Movies.Death. (via EWrestling News).

Vince McMahon's union busting

Vince McMahon's wrestlers are actually regarded as independent contractors, meaning that they aren't entitled to healthcare or workers' compensation, per Time. Despite this, they are contractually committed to working live events and making personal appearances at the WWE's demands. As former WWE wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. told Sports Illustrated, "You have to run everything by WWE." That list includes guest appearances in other media.

When Jesse Ventura tried to form a wrestlers union in the WWE in the '80s, his contract was terminated, as he recounted on "The Steve Austin Show." Subsequently, he sued McMahon, having been swindled out of royalties. Ventura maintains McMahon has done everything he can to curtail the unionization of the WWE, all the while failing to bestow his workers the most basic of rights. "They own you exclusively. How does that make you self employed? ... Wrestling's still the only industry that doesn't have a union and it's not a union to fight Vince," Ventura told Pro Wrestling Insider. "It's a union to get retirement. It's a union to get health benefits."

More recently, there was the suspicious firing of Zelina Vega after she tweeted her support of unionization. The WWE cut ties with Vega just 10 minutes after the tweet, per The Wrap. For a company that has long been under fire for the treatment of its workers, this was certainly not a good look. However, representatives told the outlet that her firing had nothing to do with her support of unionization.

Vince McMahon and the steroid scandal

The first major publicity backlash against the WWE, Vince McMahon was accused of supplying his wrestlers with steroids, resulting in a 1994 criminal trial. Indeed, Superstar Billy Graham claimed that 90% of wrestlers used steroids. McMahon allegedly used Dr. George Zahorian to supply anabolic steroids directly to his wrestlers, per The New York Times. Zahorian, who was sentenced to three years in jail in 1992 for narcotic distribution, testified that he provided Hulk Hogan with steroids. In his testimony, the doctor claimed, "[McMahon's secretary] would contact me, contact my office, speak to me personally, and ask if I would send up the anabolic steroids to Mr. McMahon's office, up to Titan Sports."

In the trial, former wrestler Kevin Patrick "Nailz" Wacholz claimed that McMahon told him he wasn't big enough to be a wrestler and urged him to take steroids. Hogan also testified, admitting that he had used the substances. "I believed it was legal because I had a prescription for it," he stated. Hogan denied that McMahon was responsible for his steroid use.

Though McMahon, who faced 11 years in jail if found guilty, was ultimately acquitted of the charges, the lawsuit damaged the WWE's public reputation and resulted in a period of domestic commercial stagnation, per Bleacher Report. It prompted the company to pivot from ultra ripped wrestlers like Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior to leaner athletic types like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, as noted in "Dark Side of the Ring" (via Last Word on Sports).

The sexual misconduct allegations against the Chairman

In 1992, Rita Chatterton, WWE's first female referee, alleged Vince McMahon raped her, per New York Magazine. The allegation pertained to an incident in 1986, meaning that the statute of limitations had passed. Her claims were corroborated by wrestler Leonard Inzitari, also known as Mario Mancini, who told the outlet, "I remember it like it was yesterday. She was a wreck. She was shaking. She was crying." Shortly after Chatterton told Inzitari about the ordeal, the WWE cut ties with her.

During a 1992 appearance on "Geraldo," Chatterton explained that when she joined the company she was told by McMahon that she would be a huge star with her face plastered on magazines, merchandise, and a $500,000 contract. But soon enough, McMahon allegedly showed his ugly side, apparently telling Chatterton, "If you wanna have a half a million contract you're gonna have to satisfy me." She alleged the Chairman used manipulation tactics, laughing in her face after he raped her.

In 2006, a 22-year-old tanning salon worker alleged that McMahon attempted to rape her, per The Daily Beast. After rushing to a nearby restaurant for help, the police were called, and the report concluded, "There is probable cause to believe that Vincent McMahon did actually and intentionally touch [the alleged victim]." However, McMahon was ultimately spared from prosecution due to lack of eyewitness testimony and physical evidence. McMahon denies all allegations of sexual misconduct.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Racism and the WWE

The WWE has long relied on crude stereotypes and caricatures as the basis for on-screen characters. Though many have been harmlessly goofy (evil tax accountants and literal garbagemen notwithstanding), there are unfortunately others that are degrading and hurtful. As wrestling writer Christopher Jeter told The New York Times, "[Racist tropes] became such a part of watching the product that it became expected."

The offensive stereotypes should come as little surprise considering that the Chairman himself has been accused of racism. In a 2005 skit that has aged as badly as Roddy Piper's blackface promo, Vince McMahon is seen greeting John Cena with a boomer attempt at "street talk," before uttering the N-word in front of Black wrestlers Booker T and Sharmell. Hulk Hogan, who was fired for uttering the N-word himself, branded McMahon a hypocrite in 2015 for his past use of the slur, per TMZ.

It doesn't end there. On an episode of "WWF Superstars," McMahon could be heard on commentary making racist remarks about a Black child who was acting as guest ring announcer for the evening. Moreover, The Atlantic accused the WWE of discrimination for rarely having Black Champions. There have, however, been positive steps in recent years to remedy this, with Black superstars Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Bobby Lashley enjoying world title reigns. And now with McMahon gone, perhaps further change and diversification is underway. 

Vince McMahon proposed problematic storylines

WWE has for many years employed a team of writers to pitch storylines, but Vince McMahon has always had the "final say" on the content of the organization's television programming. Though WWE has entertained audiences the world over with its zany and colorful cast of characters, they have also come under fire for some particularly problematic storylines. Never afraid to push the boundaries of bad taste, Vince oversaw storylines as icky as a race war between white and Black wrestlers, using miscarriages for entertainment, and outlandishly bizarre ageism wherein an octogenarian gives birth to a hand.

One storyline Vince apparently proposed, which thankfully did not see the light of day, would have seen his on-screen character revealed to be the father of his daughter Stephanie McMahon's child. In a WWE documentary (via Sportskeeda), Stephanie explained, "My dad did approach me about wanting to be the father of my baby in a storyline... That one was just a little too gross actually. It's completely disgusting. I don't find the entertainment value in it at all. And he is actually my father, so how could I even play that out? I can't fake kiss my dad like we were in love or something." Thoroughly repulsed, she shot the angle down.

As noted in the book "Chokehold: Pro Wrestling's Real Mayhem Outside the Ring," New York Post writer Phil Mushnick was one of the most prominent critics of the outlandish storylines, lambasting Vince as "the high priest of low life."

The show must go on after a wrestler dies

In 1999, the wrestling world was rocked by the death of Owen Hart, who plummeted to the ring when the equipment that lowered him from the rafters malfunctioned. The tragedy occurred in front of a live audience, though it fortunately did not air to viewers at home. Jeff Jarrett was set to perform straight after the accident, despite being in tears. During a press conference after the event, Vince McMahon was queried on the safety of the harness, snapping at a reporter, "This was a tragic accident. ... Don't try and put yourself in the spotlight here, okay?"

Speaking with The New York Times, the late wrestler's brother, Bret Hart, said of McMahon's decision to continue with the show, "It was very cold-blooded." Speaking with CBS Sports, Owen's widow, Martha Hart, called the move "appalling." She told the outlet, "Just that disrespect and lack of respect for a human life that had just been lost."

To make matters worse, when Martha sought financial compensation from McMahon, he promptly filed a countersuit against her. In an interview with Uproxx, Martha revealed, "this is a company that sued me, the widow, for breach of Owen's contract because I didn't sue them in Connecticut, I sued them in Kansas City. It's like, 'I'm not suing you for breach of contract, I'm suing you for his wrongful death.'" Martha was ultimately awarded $18 million after months of litigation, per Robb and Robb Attorney.

Vince McMahon's shady ties to Saudi Arabia

In 2018, Vince McMahon struck up a deal with the Saudi government, per Forbes. McMahon faced a huge backlash, particularly for continuing with his Saudi Arabia partnership following the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the authorization of the Crown Prince, per CBC. While other companies had severed ties with Saudi Arabia, McMahon was carrying on with business as usual.

McMahon was heavily criticized for putting profit before people, with many highlighting Saudi Arabia's human rights violations, mistreatment of women, and continued war against Yemen, per Code Pink. As wrestling writer Wade Keller told CBC, "People who thought this was a company that meant to do good are now looking at this as a blood-money grab... There's a lot of things they can do to make the world a better place that don't involve having to plug their nose and play propaganda pieces for a government with the track record of Saudi Arabia."

During an appearance on "The Pat McAfee Show," McMahon defended his Saudi Arabia partnership. "People love Western culture all over the world," he said. "They don't love our government, but they love Western culture... Cultures are cultures and you have to respect that." According to Sports Illustrated, the WWE raked in $50 million for each show in Saudi Arabia. But there was backlash from many of the organization's wrestlers, with John Cena, Daniel Bryan, and Kevin Owens refusing to participate in shows in the region, per Forbes.

Vince McMahon has admitted to multiple affairs

Vince McMahon and wife Linda McMahon met when she was 13 and he was 16, per The New York Times. Vince and Linda have been married since 1966, but their relationship has been blighted by rumors of infidelity.

Speaking with Playboy in 2001 (via Wrestling News Plus), Vince admitted to cheating on Linda on numerous occasions. "It's not something I'm proud of. I just didn't realize the impact of messing with other people's lives," he said. "Notwithstanding the impact on my wife, I'm talking about the havoc you create in other lives, just from wanting to have a good time." Although he claimed he'd been faithful to his wife for at least five years, other allegations of infidelity would be his undoing.

In 2022, Vince retired as CEO of WWE after it was alleged that he'd paid hush money to an employee with whom he was having an affair, per The Wall Street Journal. The board received a tip-off via email that Vince had paid $3 million to a paralegal he'd employed to prevent her from discussing their entanglement. The outlet notes that the relationship between the CEO and the paralegal, whose salary was doubled to $200,000 following the affair, was reportedly consensual. An investigation into Vince's misconduct found that there were numerous other female employees who had signed non-disclosure agreements. Following the revelations, there were rumors that Vince and Linda had called it quits.

The Phil Donahue interview

In 1992, the WWE was rocked by another scandal when a number of former employees came forward and accused Vince McMahon of turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct by several of its executives. Tom Cole, a former ring boy, alleged he was sexually abused as a minor when working for the organization, per Politico. The WWE ultimately paid Cole, and two other former ring boys, a small out-of-court settlement. Cole died by suicide aged 50 in 2021.

The controversy played out on an infamous episode of "The Phil Donahue Show." McMahon was present to defend himself as commentator Murray Hodgson alleged that he was fired two months into his job when he refused the sexual advances of Pat Patterson, then vice president of operations. (McMahon suspended Patterson following the accusations, though he was soon rehired once the charges were dropped, per Newsweek.) Wrestler Barry Orton also alleged he was sexually harassed by Terry Garvin in the late '70s.

The episode has aged particularly badly due to the callousness with which the accusations are met; sections of the audience erupted into laughter as the alleged victims described their ordeals. Meanwhile, Donahue himself suggested that Orton was not "helpless," being a big, strong man (a common misconception regarding male abuse victims). When Hodgson confronted McMahon about being fired, the Chairman deflected by calling the WWE a benevolent organization. 

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Linda McMahon's political campaign

Much has been made of Vince McMahon's ties to the Republican Party. As Salon points out, he's a longtime pal of Donald Trump, who even made appearances in the ring. Indeed, the merging of the WWE and politics reached full force when Linda McMahon first ran for U.S. Senator from Connecticut in 2010.

Linda faced widespread criticism due to her associations with the WWE and their perceived problematic content, per the New York Post. In response, Vince and the company launched "Stand up for WWE." The campaign's website reads, "WWE invites fans to voice their support for the company because it has come under unfair and biased attack from certain politicians and media outlets." While the WWE's initiative was ostensibly a PR exercise, making reference to its charitable endeavors such as "Tribute to the Troops" and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, they ultimately came under fire for weaponizing WWE's fanbase to spearhead Linda's political campaign. 

Democrats accused Vince McMahon of bolstering his wife's Senate run through WWE PR. "Linda McMahon's $50 million attack machine now has corporate reinforcements, thanks to the Stand up for WWE campaign launched by her husband Vince McMahon," argued the Connecticut Democratic Party, per Roll Call. "No coincidence, it looks a lot like her political campaign... except this one is probably against the law." All those millions were for nought. As noted in The New York Times, she lost to Democratic rival Richard Blumenthal.