Voices: Vince McMahon’s lengthy rap sheet is a shocking indictment of WWE – and his legacy

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In reality, he was as controversial off the screen as he was on it  (Getty Images)
In reality, he was as controversial off the screen as he was on it (Getty Images)

On Friday, at the age of 77 years old and having held the reins of World Wrestling Entertainment since 1982, Vincent Kennedy McMahon announced that he was retiring from the company that he had run for 40 years.

In McMahon’s mind, if health would have allowed, he’d have gone on as head of WWE for as long as he physically could and would have been given a grand send-off for himself on television, where during the 90s and 00s played a larger-than-life villain who clashed with the wrestling industry’s biggest stars and even, at one point, went head-to-head with Donald Trump.

In reality, he was as controversial off the screen as he was on it – and the send-off he actually received was not a bang, but a whimper.

For wrestling fans who have studied the history of the business, the rumours and accusations about McMahon are well documented.

He essentially destroyed competition within the North American wrestling scene (as by 2001 he’d forced all of his opponents out of business), he continued a show despite a wrestler dying right before the crowds’ eyes, he’s been accused of covering up a murder, stood trial over accusations of forcing steroids on his performers, went ahead with a show in Saudi Arabia just weeks after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, fired wrestlers at the height of the Covid pandemic and most recently, paying millions in hush money to former female employees that he’d had affairs with.

The story of those affairs, which were first published by the Wall Street Journal in June, finally appears to have been the scandal which has seen his house of cards come tumbling down. WWE is now a publicly traded company and has lucrative deals with NBC Universal, Fox and BT Sports to name but a few.

This is not just an entertainment company but a global empire, so it wasn’t surprising that after the first WSJ story was published, McMahon decided to step down as CEO and put his daughter Stephanie in charge on an interim basis while an internal investigation was carried out against him. However, McMahon maintained his position as WWE’s head of creative – meaning everything that was seen on television was his vision (it has since been confirmed that Stephanie is now co-CEO with Nick Khan and McMahon’s son-in-law Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque, who is now the head of creative).

At this point, McMahon seemed to be in damage prevention mode, making on-screen appearances and enforcing a message of “togetherness” to his fans who continued to cheer him. He even made public appearances at UFC events and in a curiously timed “rah-rah” pro-WWE promo had Titus O’Neil, a wrestler who has been widely praised for his charity work, appear on Monday Night Rawto talk about how proud he was to be a global ambassador for the brand.

He also emphasised that the company spreads “goodness” through their product and how they never talk about “politics, religion or race, because regardless of your race, your economic status or your nationality, this is a place that we deserve to have a safe haven.”

Although it looked like McMahon was going to belligerently soldier on through the crisis, the pressure was seemingly too much and he unceremoniously called time on his career and announced his retirement with a tweet. “At 77, time for me to retire. Thank you, WWE Universe. Then. Now. Forever. Together,” he wrote without even hinting at the reason behind the decision.

At this point, you’d probably expect WWE and its wrestlers to just sweep the story under the mat and carry on regardless. Wrestling, though, exists in it own parallel universe where despite still attracting millions of viewers around the world every week, is still largely ignored by the larger media landscape.

If the scandals against McMahon were being lobbied against the owner of a Premier League club or a major movie producer, for instance, it would be headline news. Yet the stigma around wrestling still being considered a fake circus-like sideshow means it’ll never get the attention it should require, especially with stories of this magnitude.

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Therefore, a man accused of flaunting his powers for his own sexual gains was championed by his daughter on Friday Night Smackdown, with the packed crowd in Boston, Massachusetts chanting, “thank you, Vince.” A reminder that WWE is billed as “PG” television.

WWE wrestlers both current and former also thanked McMahon on social media, many of whom attribute him to “changing their lives”, which for many is true – but maybe this isn’t the time or the place for such tributes.

It’s worth noting that the likes of The Rock and John Cena – both wrestlers who are now Hollywood superstars in their own right – have not publicly commented on McMahon’s retirement.

Given the rap sheet against McMahon, it’s a miracle that he lasted this long as the head of WWE – but perhaps his longevity is an indictment of the wrestling business. An insular world which governs itself and allowed an-all powerful man to exploit his strength and hailed him – not as a villain, but as a hero who revolutionised a business with his own ruthless aggression.

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