Numlock Sunday: Abraham Josephine Riesman on Ringmaster
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Abraham Josephine Riesman who wrote the explosive new book out this week Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America. I have been looking to this one for a while, I was a massive fan of her 2021 book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee.
The subject matter of this one will be of interest not just to wrestling fans but among anyone who has felt the reverberations across pop culture, sports and politics of one extremely complicated family and their very influential “sports entertainment” business.
The book is out this week and can be found wherever books are sold. Riesman can be found at her website and on Twitter.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Josie, thank you so much for coming on.
Hey, I'm so glad to be back. Fire away.
You are out with the new book Ringmaster this week. I have been looking forward to this all year, honestly, since I heard you announced it. Folks might know you from your Stan Lee biography. Both of these stories are about complicated men who worked in the entertainment industry and how it kind of destroyed them, I guess. What drew you to Vince McMahon?
I was a teenage wrestling fan from the ages of about 13 to 16. I was very obsessively involved in Vince McMahon's product, the World Wrestling Federation, as it was known then. And three years isn't all that long a period of time in adult human years, but in teenager years, those are a century each. It was a time when I was very impressionable, and wrestling made a big impression on me. And after I gave up on it around 2001, I stopped watching for like 20 years. And then when I was done with my biography of Stan Lee, True Believer, I had to come up with something else to write. And I was having a conversation with my wonderful spouse, who ended up being my frontline editor on this, but was not at the time, S.I. Rosenbaum, and we were just chatting about what could the next book be.
And one of us said, what about a biography of Vince McMahon? Now, she'd reported on wrestling in the past as a local news reporter. Not on the WWF, but on the wrestling world, so she was familiar with him. And I obviously was familiar with him, had a lot of distinctive memories of him, had some knowledge of his real life. But it was, as is true of most people's knowledge of Vince McMahon's real life, ill-informed, because he's very good at deliberately altering your perception of him. So it just seemed like a natural idea. He is this amazing individual whose story had not really been told in the particular way that I wanted to tell it.
It's a fascinating business story, it's a fascinating cultural story, and we'll kind of touch on each of those elements in a bit. I guess to give folks a little perspective who might not be totally familiar with wrestling, what role does Vince McMahon play in the evolution of it, and what it's become today versus what it was maybe 50 years ago?
Sure, yeah. Vince is the singular man of professional wrestling right now. There's no one more powerful or influential than him, both in the present and also in the recent past. Of the living people in wrestling, no one has had more of an influence than Vince McMahon. He took over the company from his father, who was a wrestling promoter, like his father before him, in 1982 and 1983. He, over the course of that year, purchased the company from his father and some minority shareholders.
And after that, Vince sort of went on a war of conquest. Up until then, wrestling had been this largely regional phenomenon. You had regional territories where local bosses, who operated not unlike mob bosses, would dictate what pro wrestling was in that geographic territory. And it was an oligarchy. It wasn't a democracy, but it was an oligarchy. It was not unlike the English nobility circa Magna Carta, where it's like it could have been the beginnings of democracy, but democracy it wasn't. But the fact was that power was more diffuse than it is now. Because Vince went on this little mission to take over wrestling in America and Canada, and he did entirely.
It's not exactly a monopoly because there are small other promotions, there have been. Now there's a pretty big rival promotion AEW, but for about 20 years there, from 2001 until 2020 or so, Vince was essentially unopposed in the world of professional wrestling. And the whole art form has been changed by that fact, by the fact that this one person has so much outsized influence on how it has evolved in the past for decades.
And it really was a conquest. Again, he cajoled and destroyed and won over and allied with—
And bought, don't forget bought. The big thing was he would flood the zone with money and tell the top talent at any given territory, come over to my shop and you'll get paid more. And it's a very punishing industry financially, so unsurprisingly, a lot of people said yes. And similarly, he would just buy TV slots in rival territories and start broadcasting his show in syndication. One of the WWF's employees spoke to a reporter in the early ‘80s or mid-‘80s and said that Vince was executing manifest destiny. Used that actual phrase. It was an apt comparison, let's say that.
Yeah, and I think that I would love to hear your view on how he changed wrestling to reflect him, because we're going to get in a second to how wrestling kind of changed a lot of the world around it; but whether it was the body building league that he backed for a bit, or whether it was the distinct styles in wrestling, I suppose I'd love your view on, what does the Vince McMahon wrestling world look like that's different than perhaps what came before?
The Vince McMahon world of wrestling for one thing, this is perhaps the most important thing, it no longer claims to be a real sport. This was perhaps, I mean, there's a lot that Vince reshaped, but a lot of it's sort of technical. It'll be like, oh, well he started doing this kind of camera thing. It's a vast accumulation of little things that result in an altered tapestry. But the big historic, world historic break, was Vince in the mid-‘80s started pushing to get his business deregulated so he didn't have to have state athletic committees overlooking health and safety and levying taxes. And his big strategy for that was not in public, but behind the scenes in legislation sessions and in lawsuits. He and Linda, his wife, and their underlings would say, ‘Don't worry, this is all fake. You don't need to regulate this like a sport, because it ain't a sport. It's just like the Harlem Globe Trotters or the circus.’ That was the comparison they always made.
And it's unclear whether Vince ever intended to make that all that public. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would've been, but he was kind of caught off guard in 1989 when, after four or five years of this deregulation effort and after some lawsuits that he or Linda had testified in in which they'd said all that, it finally got reported.
The New York Times ran a big story called, "Now It Can Be Told, All These Wrestlers Are All Just Having Fun." And it was about how the WWF's deregulation campaign, especially in New Jersey, had resulted in them going on the record and saying in legislation and in legal proceedings that wrestling was fake. And Vince was kind of caught off guard, because he was not intending that to be a big public New York Times story, but he'd already laid the groundwork, whether or not it was his intention. That effort also combined with something that was very public, which is that he started referring to his product in the mid-‘80s as sports entertainment, not wrestling. It was sports entertainment. And that change, that shift toward acknowledging wrestling's fakeness in a grand way, was just a sea change. It resulted in a lot of enormous upheaval.
Yeah. I suppose I'm interested in, then, how that deregulation and that upheaval affected not just folks who worked for him, but the product as well as the human beings who worked for him. So much of your book is about the relationships between Vince and various different wrestlers. If he's the only game in town and if the state's not paying attention, that lead to some significant negative impacts for a lot of people, and a couple significant positive impacts for another group. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Yeah. In the absence of anybody telling Vince what to do in a meaningful way, he was able to execute a lot of very abusive business tactics towards his workers. Wrestlers are not employees, they are independent contractors, they don't have health insurance provided by WWE, as it's known now, and they are in this very low-paying profession compared to other athletic events of similar spectacle and notability.
Like, you have these people who are every bit the athletes that a basketball player or a football player might be, but they get paid vastly less, and have so few job protections and no voice, because again, there's no collective bargaining. And so that has manifested itself in a lot of death and destruction. Not to put it too bluntly, but I could go on all day about all the people who've been affected in that way.
Just a few off the top of my head, Owen Hart, a wrestler himself, but also the younger brother of the very famous wrestler, Bret Hart, Owen Hart died in the ring. He was doing a zip line stunt — well, technically it was called a descender stunt, but that's getting technical. He was doing this stunt where he was flying in from the rafters at a pay-per-view event, and Vince had changed up who was managing that stunt, and the person who did it was allegedly somewhat incompetent, and the botched stunt led to him falling 70 feet and hitting the ropes and then falling into the ring, and he died mere minutes later, and the show went on. That was the thing about Vince, was it any other athletic event, if one of the players died, I can't imagine that the game would've continued. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe there’s some sports example that I'm not aware of, but it would be completely obscene and impossible to imagine a sporting event continuing after one of the players died.
But that's exactly what happened with Owen Hart. Vince told them to keep the show going, and the arena crowd — it was 1999, so we don't have as much internet penetration in a remote location — but you had all these people in the arena who therefore didn't know whether Owen was dead or not, thought maybe it was all part of the act, because they weren't told. And they cheered their heads off for the rest of the show thinking maybe that was all part of the show. That's just one example. There are countless people who've died young because of injuries or head trauma or steroid use, drug use, any number of things that just go completely unchecked or largely unchecked in wrestling, because it's just not a regulated or unionized industry.
The steroid component was a huge part of it as well, too.
Yeah, back in the ‘90s, it's actually kind of interesting. The steroid scandal that the WWF found itself in was arguably held up as a bigger deal than the concurrent scandals about rape. Vince was accused in that same period in the early ‘90s, and then especially in 1992 of raping a female employee in 1986. He was accused of actively knowing and looking the other way about child rape in the WWF among the so-called ring boys, these sort of underage boys who were hired to do odd jobs. And the steroid thing, and there were a bunch of other sexual misconduct allegations, but those were two of the big ones.
The steroid thing was always held up as a bigger deal than any of the other stuff. It was the steroid allegations, and those were specifically about distributing and pushing steroids on the wrestlers, which was a bit of an abstraction because Vince didn't have to actively come tell any wrestlers to do steroids, they knew that that's what the boss expected of them.
So trying to pin it on a specific like, oh, Vince said to this one wrestler, ‘You need to do steroids today, and here they are,’ that was going to be very hard to do. So it's very odd to look back on the steroid trial — well, the steroid scandal is what led to the federal trial that Vince faced in 1994 — and yet you look back on it and the steroid allegations are easily the least interesting, or at least scandalous or least harmful in many ways; even though steroids are very harmful, they're nothing compared to rape.
And it was, I wonder why the media attention went so much to the steroids. I think a lot of it just had to do with the war on drugs. There was just a general moral panic about about chemical substances, especially their use among young people. And I'm not saying young people should be doing anabolic steroids to bulk up, that's not what I'm saying at all. But I think it maybe got held up as a bigger deal than some of the allegations that may now seem more serious. Because it was part of this larger American phenomenon.
It was also likely more obvious on its face, as well as more easy to report on?
Yeah, you're absolutely right, but that doesn't necessarily preclude media from making hay out of something just because it's harder to prove, especially when it's something salacious and tabloidy like sexual misconduct. But I'm sure that was part of it, yes. With the steroid thing, you just have to turn on your TV and you see all the evidence you need by looking at the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan, as opposed to some of the other stuff.
I want to talk about some of the really cool reporting and new information that you broke in this, and just kind of things that I got out of your book that I have never seen or really kind of felt before.
And I got to say, one theme that I think you keep coming back to is just that how Vince is able to do this is that he appears to be preternaturally charismatic. And you have a couple scenes in the book, I recall one where I think he's talking to Bret Hart, where he's just able to win somebody who is technically in conflict with him, fundamentally over to his position. There was also the excerpt this week that ran about a negotiation between him and one of those ring boys.
Could you talk a little bit about, I guess, his character and his skills, and what his talents are?
Vince is an enormously charismatic individual, which is interesting because he wasn't as a child, this was not necessarily a phenomenon for his entire life. I spoke to many people who knew him when he was young before he got involved in the wrestling industry, and they all said he was kind of unremarkable. They liked him, but he was not president of the class, and oftentimes he wasn't even doing any extracurriculars.
So at some point, either it flowers or he learns it, and by the time he meets Bret Hart, Vince McMahon walks into a room and everybody looks at him. I've never been in a room other than an arena with Vince McMahon. I've never interviewed him. But everyone I know who has said they've been in the same room as him, they all say it's like gravity, you just can't escape the pole of wanting to be around this sort of uncanny dude.
It's not just that he's charismatic, he's also just physically odd to look at, and that's appropriate because Vince and his father both really understood that the human mind is easily hackable in one very particular way, which is that humans don't know what to do with uncanny-looking other humans. If you see somebody who's really big, just enormous, you're going to pay attention to them.
And if you can win them over after they started paying attention to that person, then you've got it made. And Vince is an enormous guy, not as much, he's older, but in his prime, and his prime lasted well into his 60s, he was just a bulked out dude. It's something that everyone remarked on, even before he started wrestling or doing anything as a real character, when he was just an announcer. I was talking to people who watched him in the ‘70s when he was an announcer starting out, and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, we would watch and we'd be like, “Why is the announcer so jacked? Is he going to wrestle at some point? What? Why is that happening?”’
Whether that's intentional or not, it's effective. People are weirded out by Vince McMahon, and that leads them to pay more attention to Vince McMahon, and that's something he used to his advantage a lot.
That's fascinating. I think that wrestling has lended itself rather well to memes; a lot of Vince's actual strategy with recruiting and retaining wrestlers was to find folks who had a very distinctive look. If you look at who has gone mainstream in Hollywood from wrestling, they're gents with a very specific aesthetic. Do you want to speak to some of that?
Yeah, I mean the people who have broken out of wrestling and become people that your mom might recognize are John Cena, Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, these extremely charismatic, extremely large, chiseled, slightly odd-looking men, and very few of wrestlers have actually achieved that level of mainstream prominence.
But the ones who have have been very successful. I mean, John Cena is probably the most popular wrestler who's still sort of on the roster. He occasionally wrestles for them still, but all these past stars who are still in Vince's fold, they all know where their bread is buttered, and they don't piss off Vince, they have had a lot of influence.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson's star is falling at this moment thanks to Black Adam, but that doesn't mean he's not one of the more recognizable humans on the planet. He could still run for president, he keeps teasing that he might.
Jesse Ventura, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, was not created by Vince initially, but he became a megastar thanks to Vince, and Jesse was the governor of Minnesota, and now is an influential conspiracy theorist. It's like these people come at the world from odd angles, and end up taking it in even odder angles.
Yes. Can you think of any recent examples, perhaps from recent American politics, that could potentially back that point up as well?
Yeah, right. Well, I don't know why I didn't talk about that, but yeah, there's a particular member of the WWE Hall of Fame who happens to have been the 45th president of the United States: Donald Trump. Vince and Trump are very close, they've known each other since the ‘80s.
Trump was the host of two WrestleManias in the ‘80s, and then would appear at wrestling events and class the joint up. And then eventually, most notably, he had this whole storyline where he was a character as himself, and he was in a rivalry with Vince McMahon, and they had the Battle of the Billionaires at WrestleMania in 2007. And it was a real interesting spectacle, in retrospect. I mean at the time people ate it up just because it was a reality star and another reality star essentially being goofy on television, but it ended up having a lot of significance.
I really think that experience of doing that storyline was transformative for Donald Trump, because Trump wasn't a guy who worked rallies as of 2007, really, that was not his milieu. And he's not somebody who likes watching politician speeches, it's not like he's learning how to work a rally from watching George H.W. Bush deliver the State of the Union or something; he learned from wrestling.
I say he has known Vince since the ‘80s. He's been watching McMahon Family Wrestling since he was a child. We have people on the record talking about him watching. We have people on the record talking about watching Vince Sr.'s wrestling show, that's Vince's dad, in the ‘50s, in the ‘60s, and he was really influenced by that.
Donald Trump loves wrestling, he has watched it for a very long time, and I think the experience of doing that storyline and watching all that wrestling, but especially doing the storyline, really taught him how to work a crowd into a fervor by tossing them little bits of unspeakable truth, and big chunks of completely outrageous lies, and delivering them all with the exact same level of commitment. And the crowd ate it up, and I think that was a taste of something that he then craved more of.
Fascinating. So again, the book is called Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and The Unmaking of America.
Josie, I want to kind of back out a little bit and talk about not only this book, but your previous book, because again, I mentioned in the beginning how there's a lot of connective tissue there, and how these are folks who have a chip on their shoulder, they're not in the mainstream, and they really lust for the mainstream, and then that fundamentally changes the way that they view the world, the people around them, and the folks who work for them.
Just kind of take a step back, what kind of connective tissue do you see between Vince McMahon and Stan Lee, two men who are fundamentally instrumental for the current state of pop culture?
For a huge cog of what happens in culture now and politics, as well.
They were both men who created a character based on themselves but not themselves, and then lost themselves in that character. That's the most obvious comparison.
Stan Lee, Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber and became this character named Stan Lee. And eventually that was all that was left, was the Stan Lee character, at least in most of his interactions with people outside of his inner circle. And it was a prison for him in many ways. It was, by the end, very different from how he acted with his intimates. And with Vince as well, Vince, when he became a character in the wrestling as a supreme super villain, he became Mr. McMahon, that was the official branded name for his character. And Mr. McMahon was seemingly at least an extrapolation of Vince, and I think in a lot of ways it was an extrapolation of Vince, but Vince has always maintained, ‘Oh, Mr. McMahon isn't me. Mr. McMahon is based on all the people I hated when I was growing up.’
And we didn't really have time to get into it in this interview, but my whole big fat theory about that is, he's talking about his father, Vince Sr., who he never says anything mean about, but I can't imagine he doesn't have deeply conflicted feelings, even if he's not really in touch with them, about this man who abandoned him for the first 12 years of his life, and then was cold to him for the entire rest of the time they knew each other.
We can go there. I mean again, he did kind of run off and join the circus, so to speak, when his father reentered his life.
Yes. When he met his father at 12, he threw himself into wrestling. He became a huge wrestling mark. He was not into wrestling as a child up until then, but when he found out that his father had this whole other life doing that, he wanted it, and he threw himself into it. He became his own wrestling promoter in high school.
Vince had never talked about this, but I uncovered it. In high school when he was at military school in Virginia for two years, he would stage wrestling shows in the school gymnasium. This was his beginning, and he's never talked about that because it interferes with the story he's tried to foster of himself as a juvenile delinquent, rather than somebody who was doing fights only for show.
I guess to kind of add on to that, you had a hell of a time reporting this out. It was a lot of records; covering a guy as slippery as somebody who has a wrestling character can be difficult in its own right. What went into some of the reporting?
A lot. I mean, it was a lot of going through documents and a lot of cold calling, not a lot of travel, because this was a pandemic book for the most part. I did go to North Carolina. That was my one priority: All the other travel was optional, but I had to go to North Carolina as soon as there was a vaccine. And lo and behold, once there, I went down there and I found a lot of stuff.
It was very interesting. You found this total counternarrative to what Vince had told everybody about his youth. And yeah, it was a wide array of things, lots of interviews, I talked to more than 150 people, building off of other secondary sources. You know, how does anybody write a book?
Well, so the book is called Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America. Josie, do you want to tell folks where they can find it?
Look for me at abrahamriesman.com, or you can look just at the book, at ringmasterthebook.com.