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Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment

3.9 11
by Shaun Assael

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“Current fans and recovering Hulkamaniacs alike should find [Sex, Lies, and Headlocks] as gripping as the Camel Clutch.” —Maxim

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at the backstabbing, scandals, and high-stakes gambles that have made wrestling an enduring television phenomenon. The man behind it all


“Current fans and recovering Hulkamaniacs alike should find [Sex, Lies, and Headlocks] as gripping as the Camel Clutch.” —Maxim

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is the ultimate behind-the-scenes look at the backstabbing, scandals, and high-stakes gambles that have made wrestling an enduring television phenomenon. The man behind it all is Vince McMahon, a ruthless and entertaining visionary whose professional antics make some of the flamboyant characters in the ring look tame by comparison. Throughout the book, the authors trace McMahon’s rise to power and 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 WWE 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.

With a new afterword, this is the definitive book about the history of pro wrestling.

“Reading this excellent behind-the-scenes look at wrestling promoter McMahon . . . is almost as entertaining and shocking as watching the most extreme antics of McMahon’s comic-book style creations such as Steve Austin and The Rock.”
Publishers Weekly

“A quintessentially American success story of a cocky opportunist defying the odds and hitting it big . . . Sparkling cultural history from an author wise enough to let the facts and personalities speak for themselves.”—Kirkus Reviews

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Authors Assael and Mooneyham take the reader backstage for a revealing inside look at the zany world of Vince McMahon's WWF, exploring how ring impresario McMahon succeeded in turning a moribund sport into high-impact entertainment.
Publishers Weekly
Reading this excellent behind-the-scenes look at wrestling promoter McMahon, the current ruler of the wild and ruthless world of professional wrestling, is almost as entertaining and shocking as watching the most extreme antics of McMahon's comic-book style creations such as Steve Austin and The Rock. Combining hard investigative journalism with a genuine love for wrestling's weirder tendencies, Assael (senior writer for ESPN and author of Wide Open) and Mooneyham (who writes the wrestling column in the Charleston Post and Courier) have penned one of the closest looks so far at this industry, which moved from the cheap and smoke-filled Midwestern halls of the 1930s to become one of the most successful television enterprises ever by the 1990s. The authors focus on McMahon, who rose from a difficult childhood to take command of the World Wrestling Federation and almost singlehandedly invent the current style of extreme wrestling. The authors also carefully detail how McMahon's take-no-prisoners business style led him into his own bouts with financial, legal, sexual and drug problems, until finally he had become totally seduced by the loud, angry circus he'd created. But beneath the many stories about crooked promoters, armed wives, drug-crazed and sexually profligate wrestlers, the authors also skillfully illuminate pro wrestling's influence on the media, detailing McMahon's feuds with rivals like Ted Turner and World Championship Wrestling's Eric Bischoff, as well as his byzantine dealings with notables from such companies as Viacom and NBC. This is an essential read for both fans and enemies of pro wrestling. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Detailed account of the irrepressible Vince McMahon and the rise of his popular World Wrestling Federation by ESPN writer Assael (Wide Open, 1998). This is a quintessentially American success story of a cocky opportunist defying the odds and hitting it big. McMahon, son of a wrestling promoter, had a vision: to take the low-rent, late-night TV pro wrestling of the 1960s from tawdriness to mainstream by making the sport’s bombastic plotlines and cartoon characters even more outrageous. He set about buying smaller wrestling TV syndicates and creating his own stable of marketable heroes and villains. By the late ’90s, with WWF’s weekly “Smackdown” a primetime hit, McMahon had fully come into his own. Assael’s account overflows with inside information about pro wrestling’s Machiavellian promoters and managers, scandals and double-crosses, and the author delights in revealing how bouts are scripted for maximum entertainment value. Colorful personalities abound: Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Sable, Chyna, the legendary Mick Foley, Cyndy Lauper, Captain Lou Albano, Mike Tyson, Dennis Rodman, and Karl Malone. The author is conversant equally with the behind-the-scenes manipulations of such TV moguls as Ted Turner (who, like McMahon, saw early on that there was big money to be made from primetime wrestling) and the gritty facts of some of the sport’s best-known tragedies, including the deaths of fighters Owen Hart and Brian Pillman. There’s a solid background chapter on wrestling’s humble beginnings as the twisted offspring of vaudeville, carnival midway, and the late-night TV wasteland. Assael acknowledges that McMahon, while at times despicable, is motivated by a real love of pro wrestling and is aslovable as he is crass. What makes the WWF story so compelling is that, like B-movies, Betty Page pin-ups, and other once-marginalized cultural phenomenon, it’s thoroughly representative of America’s late 20th-century trend toward populist vulgarity. Sparkling cultural history from an author wise enough to let the facts and personalities speak for themselves.

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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 Truman emergency room. She sat frozen when she hung up the phone, looking at the wedding ring she'd slipped on ten years earlier. She took a few long breaths before summoning the nerve to call Owen's parents.

Eighty-four-year-old Stu Hart was sitting down to dinner with his wife Helen when she called. A friend who was watching the pay-per-view from a sports bar had already told them that there had been an accident. Martha began the call with the words "This is the worst thing I'm ever going to have to say."

Stu and Helen raised eight boys who'd gone into wrestling and four girls who'd married wrestlers. How had the business come to this? They asked themselves that question over and over that night, as did many of the other people who remembered when wrestling belonged to a much simpler time.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want a full biography of Vincent Kennedy McMahon, then this is the right book for the job. However, it covers much more than that. In some way or another, everything mentioned did affect Vince and the WWE. You'll read about the old days of wrestling which included the legendary Lou Thesz as well as 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers, risks Vince failed and made big on (i.e. the XFL & Wrestlemania I respectively), Vince's purchase of the World Wrestling Federation from Vince Sr., Vince's ruthless acquisition of territories, striking it big with Cyndi Lauper and MTV, Crockett Promotions, Ted Turner, the birth of the now defunct World Championship Wrestling, Terry 'Hulk Hogan' Bollea's ego, the steroid scandal which heavily involved Bollea, Bollea's defection to WCW, why Lex Luger didn't become the star Vince wanted him to be, the deaths of the British Bulldog, Miss Elizabeth, Owen Hart, & Brian Pillman, the Montreal 'screwjob,' the Monday Night Wars, the relationship of the McMahons and the USA Network, Vince's acquisition of WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling, and much, much more. Disappointments: The authors made the story rather difficult to follow at times. In many of McMahon's business deals and the like, so many people (no-names) were involved, it was hard to understand which no-name was being discussed. I found numerous typographical errors throughout the text that led to some confusion. Books that sell for this price shouldn't have these said errors. The World Wrestling Federation changing its name to World Wrestling Entertainment wasn't discussed. There's little mention of this. Some of the detailed history of the sport was a boring read at times. Much of it wasn't relevant in what exactly it had to do with McMahon.
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Jga1635 More than 1 year ago
I thought the book was a fast read and had a lot of great stories and background information. I don't actually view it as a 100% biography of McManhon, but it did give a detailed account. So much has happened in the last 10 years that a sequel actually makes sense. Great read.