The colorful life of WWE CEO Vince McMahon is unparalleled in sports history. A third-generation wrestling promoter who rose to prominence as a cultural figure in the mid-1980s when pro-wrestling experienced an unexpected boom in zeitgeisty popularity, McMahon first pretended to be merely a ringside commentator before it was shockingly revealed that he was in charge of the entire company. From there, McMahon would insert himself into various storylines as a character in his own company, usually playing a villainous a version of himself on television.
Both within kayfabe and behind-the-scenes, McMahon has remained a controversial figure. Raking in at least a billion dollars with his highly profitable mega-corporation, McMahon's personal behavior and business practices have been the subject of considerable scrutiny from the start of his career onward. And while he often uses elaborate and self-referential plots within the WWE to deflect criticism, McMahon hasn't successfully escaped accusations pertaining to a bevy of illicit behaviors ranging from corrupt business practices to sexual misconduct.
Now, as some of McMahon's shadier practices are discussed in Viceland's newest docu-series "Dark Side Of The Ring," we're taking a look at some of the more shocking allegations, both criminal and just plain unseemly, made against McMahon.
1. John Oliver accused McMahon of screwing his employees out of health care in 2019.
The complicated politics of WWE's contracts with its performers has been the subject of debate within the wrestling industry for years, but a recent exposé by John Oliver on "Last Week Tonight" reveals a handful of, if not illegal, than at least unconscionable business practices implemented by McMahon's company.
In the episode, Oliver highlighted the trend of wrestlers dying at young ages as a result of complex factors including drug addiction, untreated mental health issues, and a lack of medical care for injuries. He also examined the questionable status of wrestling performers at the WWE as "independent contractors" — a policy ostensibly crafted by McMahon as a clever way to avoid paying for their healthcare.
"While the character Vince is an assh*le, it's important to know that the real Vince is also an assh*le," summarized Oliver.
WWE has countered Oliver's argument by creating what it described as a point-by-point counter-argument to Oliver's segment. However, these refutations were (confusingly) not released to the public.
“John Oliver is clearly a clever and humorous entertainer, however the subject matter covered in his WWE segment is no laughing matter," WWE said in a statement to Deadline. "Prior to airing, WWE responded to his producers refuting every point in his one-sided presentation.”
“John Oliver simply ignored the facts,” the statement continued. “The health and wellness of our performers is the single most important aspect of our business, and we have a comprehensive, longstanding Talent Wellness program. We invite John Oliver to attend WrestleMania this Sunday to learn more about our company.”
A recent analysis from Fightful writer Bradon Howard Thurston published in the wake of the "Last Week Tonight" episode concludes, "Reclassifying WWE’s 215 contracted performers would cost the company, by an aggressive estimate, about $28.5 million in annual added expenses. That’s a price WWE is more than profitable enough to cover."
2. An unnamed woman claimed to have been sexually assaulted by McMahon in 2006.
An arrest warrant was filed in 2006 after a Boca Raton, Florida tanning salon employee claimed she was attacked by McMahon, according to The Daily Beast. McMahon refused to give any comment on the matter at the time, and McMahon was never formally charged. A letter from his attorney to police denied any wrongdoing.
The police report about the incident details the woman's account of the alleged incident: She claimed McMahon began showing her nude pictures of himself on his phone after she asked to take a picture with him. Then, McMahon allegedly followed her to another room, closed the door behind them, and began forcibly groping and attempting to kiss her. She claimed she repeatedly rebuffed his advances, at which point he left.
Mike Edmondson, a spokesperson for the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, explained why no charges were ultimately filed.
“A misdemeanor that is not done in the presence of a law enforcement officer in Florida generally is not a prosecutable case unless there is a independent witnesses and or physical evidence as in photos — that kind of thing,” he said in a statement, according to The Daily Beast.
The issue re-surfaced when McMahon announced that he would not hire talent with criminal histories in his as-yet-unrealized revitalized football league, the XFL.
3. McMahon was accused of accepting Saudi Arabian "blood money" by various critics in 2018.
In 2018, WWE partnered with the Saudi Arabian government in a 10-year deal as part of the nation's campaign toward modernization and westernization, according to Forbes. The first WWE event in Saudi Arabia occurred in the city of Jeddah in April 2018.
But between the first and second Saudi events, a geo-political conflict arose after an American journalist named Jamal Khashoggi was killed, with many in the international community blaming the Saudi government for the death — saying Khashoggi was assassinated by the Saudi government after speaking out against the regime, according to the BBC.
The WWE nonetheless held the so-called Crown Jewel Pay-per-view event in Saudi Arabia on November 2 of that same year, prompting widespread criticism.
"What a bad decision that is," said ESPN's Dan Le Batard, according to Wrestle Zone. "But, it’s the sewer and the sewer is going to behave like the sewer. There’s a lot of money in Saudi Arabia, so much money, so wrestling is going back to Saudi Arabia as we wonder whether Saudi Arabia kills journalists with bone saws. It’s not a hard statement to make. You’re usually not this overt about 'We’ll take your money even though you’re being investigated for killing a journalist with a bone saw.' We’re usually not quite that overt like, 'Yeah, we’ll take your money, your blood money, no matter what.'”
4. McMahon was accused of distributing steroids "like candy" to WWE performers in 1993.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York had charged McMahon with one count of conspiring to violate federal laws regulating steroids in 1993, according to The New York Times.
Prosecutors claimed that a urologist named Dr. George T. Zahorian (named as an unindicted co-conspirator) provided McMahon with anabolic steroids which were distributed "like candy" for his performers in the hopes of improving their muscle-bound appearances, according to The New York Times.
McMahon was ultimately acquitted due to what Vice reporter Dan O'Sullivan described as a "mish-mash of sloppy legal errors and underwhelming witness testimony—including that of an uncommonly subdued Hulk Hogan."
5. McMahon remains accused of crafting an elaborate con to take the Heavyweight title off Bret Hart in 1997.
"Dark Side of the Ring" covers the various hypotheses around the so-called Montreal Screwjob. In this hotly debated confluence of events, McMahon is widely believed to have constructed an elaborate scenario so as to take a championship belt off departing pro-wrestler Bret Hart after Hart refused to lose to his opponent, Shawn Michaels.
In short: Hart claims that he was lied to by McMahon, who had manipulated the outcome of his match at Survivor Series 1997 so that the bell would ring when a submission hold was applied to Hart, thus ending the match in the favor of opponent Shawn Michaels. This plan was not known by Hart, who claims he had been told the outcome of the match would be entirely different.
The resulting rivalry between McMahon and Hart would explode into an ongoing public debate about the nature of pre-determined victories within the pro-wrestling industry that rages to this day. On the other hand, many fans and wrestlers believe that the entire Montreal Screwjob was an elaborate hoax, despite both McMahon and Hart's claims about what transpired in the wake of the scandal.
Evan Husney, the producer of "Dark Side of the Ring" talked to Oxygen.com about the enduring appeal of the politics of "reality" within wrestling, as highlighted by the Screwjob.
"This is a world where that area is very gray," Husney said. "And that's what was really appealing to us. We weren't just trying to separate fact from fiction — we weren't literally in the pursuit of truth. It's more about trying to just play in that gray area. We're trying to show you how that gray area is unique and singular to wrestling."
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