From the cable television ratings to the bestseller lists, professional wrestling is red-hot. How it got that way is not a pretty picture, but it’s one that is painted in more detail than ever before in Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, the first in-depth, journalistic look at the world of wrestling.
At the heart of the story is Vince McMahon, the mercurial owner of the World Wrestling Federation. The authors trace his beginnings as the forgotten son of a second-generation wrestling czar who left rural North Carolina to stake his own claim to the family business. They detail his early, ruthless genius in declaring war on the old territory czars who had grown fat and lazy. And they show how his first brush with fame in the 1980s with Hulk Hogan and Cyndi Lauper sowed the seeds for the drug and sex scandals that nearly toppled his empire in the 1990s. They also tell us the inside story of McMahon’s blood feud with Ted Turner, adding some surprising details about the two men’s quests to ruin each other.
Throughout the book, the authors examine the appeal of the industry’s biggest stars—including Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Gorgeous George, Bruno Sammartino, Ric Flair, and, most recently, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. In doing so, they show us that while WWF stock is traded to the public on Wall Street, wrestling remains a shadowy world guided by a century-old code that stresses secrecy and loyalty.
Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at the history, personalities, back-stabbing, scandals, and high-stakes gambles that have made Vince McMahon the king of the ring and wrestling an enduring television phenomenon.
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Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN: The Magazine, is the author of Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour.
Mike Mooneyham, an editor with the Charleston Post and Courier, pens the longest-running wrestling column in the country.
Kansas City: May 23, 1999
As Owen Hart arrived at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, he felt queasy about what his paycheck required of him. Most of the wrestlers, or the Boys, employed by the World Wrestling Federation were willing to do anything that Vince McMahon, its dimple-chinned owner, asked of them. But Owen had recently begged off of performing a seduction scene with a former Miss Texas named Debra Marshall. The WWF had just come through the May sweeps having notched the four highest-rated shows in all of cable television. And Hart knew that the children in his son's private school in Calgary-like those in schools across America-watched its show on Monday nights. He didn't want to confuse his son, who was just seven, or his three-year-old daughter, by flirting with another woman before 6 million viewers.
Unfortunately, his request for an alternative yielded something that was only slightly more appealing. McMahon had ordered him to resurrect the Blue Blazer, a silly superhero that Owen had used when he was starting out in the mid-eighties, when the business was still about cartoon costumes and simple morality plays. It required him to wear a full-face mask with dollops of silver and red, a blue leotard with a red spider on it, and a feathered shoulder cape, all of which he found extremely embarrassing. But he assumed that was the point. McMahon wanted to use him to needle all the moralists and handwringers who were accusing the WWF of peddling pornography and violence to kids. The more self-consciously pious the Blazer looked and acted, the better he served that purpose.
Because this was one of twelve pay-per-views that the WWF staged a year in addition to its regular cable TV shows, McMahon also wanted a little something extra from the Blazer tonight. Owen and his wife, Martha, had discussed it before he left for Kansas City, while they were walking through the five-thousand-square-foot home they were building in Calgary's pristine and woodsy Elbow Valley. Owen liked to quip that he was probably the cheapest man in wrestling, though he rarely joked when he sidled up to the younger Boys and implored them to be smart with their money, to save it for when their star eventually faded. He could have done without all those nights sleeping in cheap motels, eating bad buffet food. But at least he knew where it had gone-into this lakefront spread. Too many wrestlers his age had woken up with no clue. (And no house.)
As he looked at his wife, however, he could see she was worried about what the job required this week. Vince's writers wanted the Blazer to descend on a steel cable from the arena's rafters, looking clumsy and comical on the way down. Martha was concerned because her husband was afraid of heights; the whole thing just seemed absurdly risky to her. But Owen said that he'd made one stink already this month. He wasn't going to land deeper in Vince's doghouse by making another one so soon.
If there was any consolation, it was that the evening would end with him winning the Intercontinental belt, a mid-card honor that assured he'd be kept in the limelight. The writers had arranged that he'd get it from Charles Wright, a popular three-hundred-pound ex-Vegas bouncer whose character, a pimp called the Godfather, was escorted to the ring by faux hookers in a ho train. Once he made it into the ring he'd be fine, Owen told his wife.
But as the thirty-four-year-old walked past the guard station at the Kemper Arena, he had to admit he still felt uneasy. After making his way backstage, he grabbed a bite to eat at the preshow buffet and decided to use his spare time to climb up to the catwalk and look over the rigging. It featured a harness with a release mechanism similar to the kind used on a parachute; once he'd gotten all the way down, all he had to do was pull a lever and it would release him. It sounded simple, but neither three successful trial runs nor the backstage food had completely settled his stomach by show time.
The pay-per-view was called Over the Edge, and in order to boost the number of buys that night, McMahon used a tried-and-true gimmick: On Sunday nights, the USA network broadcast another of his cable shows, which was called Heat. On the one airing tonight, he created a cliff-hanger ending that viewers had to pay to see resolved. He'd personally climbed into the ring to face a brawler with a tattooed forehead and in the process supposedly had his ankle shattered. As the show ended at 8 P.M., viewers saw the fifty-three-year-old writhing in pain, offering the lure of three more hours of similar action for just $29.95.
For the two hundred and fifty thousand viewers who bought Over the Edge, the next image they saw was of a hooded devil worshiper with white eyes, bathed in pink smoke and intoning, "Tonight, darkness will seize the land and destroy all you hold dear." This was the Undertaker, promising that later in the evening he would meet the company's biggest star, Steve Austin, and "devour your soul."
Owen was already on the catwalk by the time that part of the show went to air. Wearing coveralls to mask his costume, he'd made his way unnoticed through the crowd, reaching a ladder that took him to a juncture where three stagehands were waiting to help him get ready for the stunt. Before he'd arrived, he'd taped a video clip of his own, declaring, "The Blue Blazer is back because the WWF needs the Blue Blazer." Now, as he watched it flicker on two huge video screens in the arena, he breathed evenly and thought about how he was going to make the twenty thousand fans watching it laugh after he'd dropped down and released the harness.
Ringside announcer Jim Ross was watching Hart's pretaped segment on his monitor when Owen started his descent, as was his partner, the acerbic colorman, Jerry Lawler. It was Lawler who first heard the words "Look out!" and glanced up to see Hart hurtling eighty feet down the rigging. Fans who saw the same thing thought they were seeing a mannequin falling headfirst off one of the padded buckles that connects the ring ropes, flipping over and collapsing in a heap in the corner of the ring.
Lawler elbowed Ross and mouthed the frightened words "He fell," then leaped from his seat and raced to the ring. When he found Hart lying on his back with his left arm extended in the air, Lawler's first reaction was relief: He thought the wrestler was signaling that he was still alive. But then the announcer looked more closely.
Hart's eyes were open, but they were lifeless. A gash had been torn in his arm, but there was little blood, a sign that his heart had stopped beating. As Hart's body changed in color from purple to blue to gray, Lawler cradled the dying wrestler's head in his arms, waiting for the paramedics to arrive.
A backstage producer feverishly screamed for someone to call the ambulance-the one that had been used in the night's earlier stunt with McMahon-to get it to turn around and head back to the arena. A child in the front row, assuming it was all part of the act, gleefully pointed at Hart's body, waving the Styrofoam middle finger he'd bought earlier. In the broadcast truck, the show's director screamed to cut back to the continuation of Hart's taped interview. And in that instant, the Blue Blazer reappeared before tens of thousands of television viewers, mugging for the camera and proclaiming that "the Godfather is everything that is wrong with the WWF. But the Blue Blazer will triumph over the evildoers."
Lawler got a sick feeling as he heard the chant "Owen, Owen" from fans who assumed the men in the EMT uniforms rushing into the ring were actors. "It doesn't look good at all," he said as he returned to the announcing table. As if the point needed embellishing, a fan behind him pointed to the ceiling and made a cutthroat gesture across his neck for the camera. Realizing that it was his job to fill the time, a shaken Ross told viewers, "This is not part of the entertainment tonight. This is as real as it can be."
In the seven minutes that the ring lay still and silent, McMahon called his crew together, forced to make the most difficult decision of his career. What should he do? Cancel the show? Christ, he was afraid he'd have a riot. No, he told his staff, they'd keep filming while Owen got aid. If anyone couldn't go on, he'd understand. Jeff Jarrett, Owen's tag-team partner, didn't have time to reply. As the stretcher carrying his old friend passed by, stagehands corralled him and Marshall, the former Miss Texas, to keep the show going. He rushed through a few unconvincing boasts, then made his way to the ring to meet a porn star character with slicked muscles named Val Venis and his butch-looking paramour, a muscular six-foot-two, 230-pound woman named Nicole Bass. Quickly getting down to business, Jarrett and Venis threw one another across the ring while Marshall jumped on Bass's back, wiggling provocatively for the camera. As soon as the act was done, Jarrett slid past a bloodstain on the mat and out of the ring, flagging down a cop to drive him the four miles to the Truman Medical Center.
The rest of the show continued the confused blur between fact and fiction. As Hart was being sped to the hospital, the ambulance that carried him was appearing to television viewers in the time-delayed skit involving McMahon's broken ankle. An even more disquieting match followed it in which one wrestler sealed his rival in a casket and smashed it with a sledgehammer. Backstage, the Boys waited for word on Owen's condition. Shortly after 8:30 P.M. central time, the word reached them. He'd been pronounced dead.
Should McMahon have stopped the show then? That was a question he'd get grilled about in the morning, when the front page of the New York Post screamed, "Death in the Ring: Thousands Watch TV Wrestler's Tragic Plunge." For now, he just knew he had to find a phone to reach Martha Hart.
By the time he got through, Martha had already heard from the Trum...
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