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WWE's controversial, "larger-than-life" Vince McMahon casts a big shadow in Connecticut

WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
World Wrestling Entertainment
WWE CEO Vince McMahon.

Vince McMahon stepped down from his role as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, the Stamford-based pro wrestling empire, last week after reports he paid a secret $3 million settlement to a former employee with whom he allegedly had an affair. McMahon has been the public face of his company — sometimes even getting in the ring with his wrestlers.

Brian Solomon is the co-host of the Pro Wrestling Illustrated podcast and author of the best-selling wrestling biography Blood and Fire. He wrote for WWE publications from 2000 to 2009. He spoke with WSHU's Davis Dunavin about McMahon's legacy.

WSHU: Vince McMahon doesn’t really strike me as a typical CEO. What’s his public personality like?

BS: He’s tailor-made for the professional wrestling industry. It was very much a closed and insulated society, and he had that alpha-male personality, very competitive, and that’s why he’s been able to dominate the business now for the last 40 years, especially the last 20.

WSHU: McMahon grew the company from a regional business to a global brand in the ’80s with stars like Hulk Hogan. It was called the World Wrestling Federation then. It changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment in 1999 — around the same time it became a publicly traded company.

And of course, he plays a character on his own shows. A bad guy called Mr. McMahon, who’s sort of the world’s worst boss. Is there some blurring of the lines with performance and reality with McMahon?

BS: Well, one of the things they always say in the wrestling business about some of the best onscreen characters and personas is that the best way to do it is to be yourself but with the volume turned up. Of course, the problem comes when — heh — you’re also running a publicly traded company and you have this questionable onscreen persona. So for years, he tried his best to differentiate between the two.

Like, I remember when I worked there, we were only to refer to the onscreen character as "Mr. McMahon" — to differentiate between Mr. McMahon, the TV character and Vince McMahon, the person running the company. You never knew what you were going to get because sometimes you got that character — that even happened to me — but sometimes you’d get the more reasonable human being that you could converse with.

WSHU: Now, of course, he has faced criticism. There have been some scandals in the past.

BS: Any discussion of Vince would be incomplete without talking about scandal and the problematic nature of his reign as the head of the company, because it’s kind of gone hand in hand, unfortunately.

In the early ’90s, there was the steroid scandal, where Vince was on trial and almost went to jail for the charge of distribution of illegal steroids and performance-enhancing drugs to his wrestlers. There have been sex scandals over the years that were very public. There’s always been this black cloud hanging over him to one degree or another — it’s almost been a miracle that he has survived relatively unscathed this long.

WSHU: Why do you think this is the one where he’s — at least temporarily — stepping down from his post?

BS: Well, it's a very different world now than it was 30 years ago, even 20 years ago. And as there should be, there's far less tolerance for this type of behavior, and there's far more accountability. And you also can't forget that the difference now from what it was in the '80s and '90s is that WWE is indeed a publicly traded corporation. It has a board of directors, it has stockholders to answer to.

This was not the case at the time of some of Vince's worst scandals. One of the charges against him is that he was paying hush money to women. If he's using company money to do this, that's a very serious thing. But even if he's using his personal money, which he has claimed that he is, that's still questionable, dubious, concerning behavior.

There's been talk going on for about a year now of a corporate buyout of WWE by a major media company. And so when you're going through this kind of a process, again, you don't want to have these ugly scandals kind of muddying the waters and maybe even threatening the deal.

WSHU: WWE brings in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue. And the company is one of Stamford’s largest employers — with more than 700 people — in a city known for having a lot of corporate headquarters. It’s one of the state’s most recognizable and valuable brands, right?

BS: The McMahon organization and WWE has been very visible and very present in the state of Connecticut for 40 years now, really, ever since Vince McMahon, Jr. — Vincent Kennedy McMahon — has owned the company. It's been based out of Connecticut since the early '80s. They were originally in Greenwich, and then they moved to Stamford in the late '80s.

It's always been kind of known that they did have a lot of political influence and they wanted to kind of curry that influence. I remember when I worked there, the understanding was that on the board at the time consulting were a lot of local politicians. And of course, we've seen the ambitions of Vince's wife, Linda, directly in the realm of politics, running for Senate, and then also her recent position in the Trump administration. They've long had their hands in those areas for sure.

WSHU: So, McMahon has stepped down a bit. He did appear on the show on Friday, and spoke briefly. You spoke a little bit to some of the potential future of WWE, but for now, do you think McMahon plans on going anywhere?

BS: Vince McMahon is a very stubborn, single-minded individual. And he does not like being told what to do. This is somebody who has enjoyed life on his own terms, who has enjoyed running his business and dominating his industry, often with little regard for anyone else. So he finds himself in a bit of a situation here. And he is not the person to kind of go quietly, he is not the person to take the high road.

But we're entering new waters here, and it may be difficult for him, especially at the age of 77, to continue to exert his will in this way. And so he may find that the decisions are out of his hands.

WSHU: McMahon’s daughter Stephanie is serving as the company’s interim CEO and chair. Like her father, Stephanie McMahon has also wrestled on WWE shows. But Vince McMahon will remain in charge of the brand’s creative content.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.