Wrestling has long been a family business, passing genetic brawn and earned enthusiasm for a life on the road from one generation to the next. And no family has been as influential or consequential as the McMahon family, which has over four generations shaped the entire landscape of professional wrestling in its own image.
Most wrestling families have earned their fame in the ring, but a vast majority of the McMahons’ innovations and body slams have come in the boardroom. Their story goes back all the way to the early 1950s, when Jess McMahon, the son of Irish immigrants in New York, began what would one day, and many evolutions later, become the WWE, the largest and most dominant pro wrestling organization in the world.
Jess started out as an entrepreneurial sports promoter in New York City, managing and promoting a boxing club in Harlem. He got involved in baseball, founding a few Negro League ballclubs in the area, ran a casino and then got involved in the nascent world of pro wrestling. Jess, never one to waste a business opportunity, began promoting wrestling matches, too, in both Long Island and New York City, including at Madison Square Garden.
Vince McMahon Sr. saw the potential to build a wrestling empire
It was Jess' son, Vincent "Vince" J. McMahon Sr., that really took to the wrestling business, which he envisioned as a grand spectacle capable of enthralling a cross-section of Americans. In 1953, the father and son duo launched the Capitol Wrestling Corporation (CWC) and soon teamed with a long-time wrestler-turned-promoter named Joseph “Toots” Mondt, who had revolutionized both the infrastructure and showmanship of the scripted sport.
The CWC joined the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), the governing body sanctioned and oversaw most wrestling across the United States at that time. Unlike Major League Baseball or the NFL, there was no one dominant wrestling league at that time. Instead, the sport had a more diffuse system, with different promotions “owning” different geographic territories. CWC extended its reach down to the mid-Atlantic when Vince Sr. bought an arena in the city and began putting on regular matches.
What really caused a stir was Vince Sr.’s successful effort to get two-hour wrestling extravaganzas broadcast on local TV. In 1956, Heavyweight Wrestling began a short run on the Dumont Network’s channel in D.C. and then got on televisions around the New York metropolitan area via syndication.
Other wrestling promoters were wary of the idea and resented McMahon for pursuing it, believing that putting wrestling on TV for free would kill the incentive for people to pay to see it in person. Wrestling companies made almost all of their money from ticket sales as they barnstormed their respective territories, so the CWC, they believed, was putting all of their livelihoods at stake.
Vince Sr., obviously, didn’t buy it. Instead, he figured that just the opposite would happen, with regular TV broadcasts hooking viewers and enticing them to come down to see the matches in the flesh.
"If this is the way television kills promoters," he said, "I'm going to die a very rich man."
McMahon’s theory proved correct, but the wider exposure to the product he was selling also proved controversial. He believed in big, bombastic shows, with heroic good guys and bad guys that oozed evil. One of the characters in particular, Karl Von Hess, a Nazi who reveled in violence before getting beaten at the climax of each show, drew the outrage of parents across the region.
This only drew more attention to the product, which allowed Vince Sr. to reply flippantly to letters to the editor in local papers and in interviews.
"There is a simple solution for this,” he once famously responded. “There is a knob on each TV set for changing the channels. If the show doesn't appear to you, all you have to do is flip a knob and watch something else."
By 1963, the CWC was growing at a rapid pace, creating conflicts with the NWA and leading Vince Sr. to form the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), which operated as its own body to sanction title bouts. More success followed, especially once they launched even bigger TV shows in 1971 and 1972, including WWWF Championship Wrestling, which ran through 1986.
Vince McMahon Jr. turned his father’s company into a worldwide empire
In 1982, Vince Sr. sold the WWWF to his son, Vincent "Vince" McMahon Jr., who had formed the company Titan Sports just a few years prior. Wrestling was still something of a territorial business, but the third McMahon to run the business had grand designs on worldwide domination.
When he took over, the family business, which, in a slight but consequential rebrand became WWF, was neck and neck with the NWA and a newer rival, the AWA. Vince Jr. was ready to take them to the mat and began signing up some of the top talents from the other promotions. Some stuck in the WWF longer than others, but it was clear that the younger McMahon was ready to fight his way to the top.
One of the first big haymakers that the new owner threw at his rivals was secretly maneuvering to buy one of the NWA’s biggest promotions, Georgia Championship Wrestling. That gave him access to even more talent (including future icon Hulk Hogan) and, more importantly, weakened a key rival. The way Vince Jr. announced the buyout was an early taste of his flair for the dramatic. On the Saturday evening after the deal closed, Vince Jr. appeared on TV during the GCW’s coveted time slot on Ted Turner’s Superstation to reveal his takeover. The event became known as “Black Saturday'' and marked a major turn in the wrestling wars.
Vince Jr. continued to buy regional promotions and roll them up into the WWF, earning national exposure (even if he soon lost the Saturday time slot on the Superstation). He continued to take risks and try new approaches, appealing to younger fans via a new generation of wrestlers and putting shows on MTV and then creating the first national pay-per-view event with WrestleMania III, which set the business model for years to come.
In 2001, when WWE (as it became known) purchased the Turner-owned WCW, it became the only real name in wrestling.
The McMahons also became a significant part of the show
Though they shared ambitions, one of the big differences between Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. was that the elder believed that ownership should stay out of the spotlight while the younger McMahon embraced being part of the action. He was a ringside commentator beginning in the early 1970s and continued in the role after he bought the company.
For much of that time, the kayfabe (or fictional storyline) presented other men as the chairman and owner of the WWF. That ended in 1997 when Vince Jr. plotted to surprise star Bret Hart in a match during a major event in Canada. Vince Jr. hopped into the ring to take responsibility for the wildly unpopular plan, dubbed the “Montreal Screwjob,” after it was executed. At the time, it was a matter of real life bleeding into fiction — he really did surprise and piss off Hart with the match’s outcome — and introduced the world to a new character: Mr. McMahon.
Over the last 24 years, Vince Jr. has frequently been part of storylines, playing a nefarious villain and foil to some of the company’s most powerful and popular superstars. His rivalry with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was the main focal point of the WWE’s action for several years in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and his own children began to get involved as they reached adulthood.
Now, his daughter, Stephanie, and her husband, a superstar wrestler who goes by Triple H, are depicted as the main operators of the WWE, and really do play a major role in its corporate governance. When Vince Jr. retires, they are likely to take over, making for a fourth generation of the McMahon clan to control what is now the world’s biggest wrestling company.