On Friday, July 22nd, 2022, something happened that I never thought I’d see in that person’s lifetime. Vince McMahon, the juggernaut Chairman and CEO of WWE for so many decades, did not die in his chair, but instead announced his retirement.
— Vince McMahon (@VinceMcMahon) July 22, 2022
But this was not a triumphant sendoff. The suddenness of the announcement presaged a SmackDown episode where Vince McMahon was barely mentioned at all. There was no curtain call, no video tribute, just a brief mention by his daughter and successor, and some sporadic chants of “thank you, Vince” from the fans.
It was a sign not of triumph, but of tragedy. So let’s take a look at the tragic fall of Vince McMahon and see what we can learn from it.
The Rise of Vince McMahon
Vince McMahon is the greatest fight promoter of all time. Nothing and nobody will ever take that away from him. Indeed, American mass media culture would not be what it is today without him. He was a critical figure in the rise of cable and pay-per-view. Late in his career, he became a pioneer in the streaming boom with the launch of the WWE Network in 2014. Many other sports and entertainment companies would follow his lead there. They owe him much.
McMahon grew up poor, eventually got involved with his absent father’s WWWF wrestling promotion, and had a vision. He was going to turn his father’s regional territorial promotion into a national and then a worldwide company. To do that, he would first need to become the undisputed leading promoter in the United States, but he had a rival, Jim Crockett Promotions (the company that eventually became World Championship Wrestling).
So he conceived his company’s signature show. Vince bet big on the first WrestleMania. If the event did not succeed, there was a high likelihood that he would have gone bust. But he was clever and used the then-ascendant MTV to market his top guy, Hulk Hogan, as a mainstream figure. He also brought in heavy celebrity involvement, with Mr. T of Rocky III fame wrestling in the main event alongside his co-star from the film, Hulk Hogan. Other celebrities included Muhammad Ali, Liberace, and Cyndi Lauper. WrestleMania succeeded, leading to the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
That boom eventually ended and by the mid-1990s, the World Wrestling Federation was in trouble. A federal steroid trial almost brought Vince McMahon down, and his company was struggling against an ascendant WCW, who had poached Hulk Hogan and other top talent. But he was nothing if not a survivor. He adapted, took advantage of WCW’s mistakes, and his attempt to out-compete them created a second boom for the wrestling industry that was even bigger than the first.
He triumphed again, defeating WCW. He then turned his company into a global business and took his annual big events into football stadiums. He had come a long way from his poor childhood, and throughout, he was not even afraid of humiliating himself on camera if it was for the good of his company. He himself became the best heel in the business with his “Mr. McMahon” character, whose feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin was crucial for the triumph of his company.
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The Fall of Vince McMahon
In addition his professional accomplishments, Vince McMahon is often the subject of praise by the people who worked for him (and therefore are in less need to butter him up). For example, The Rock called him a father figure. Nevertheless, he always had a dark side, which viewers would sometimes see play out through his twisted sense of humor.
Vince McMahon was never uncomfortable with any source of money. Since 2018, he has entered a business relationship with the Saudi Arabian government which even drew criticism from the State Department. Corporate executives have a fiduciary duty to maximize returns for their shareholders, but Vince was always amoral when it came to sources of money, a fact which highlights the character traits which eventually brought him down.
McMahon was also the type to surround himself with toadies, cronies, and yes-men. These included characters like John Laurinaitis and Kevin Dunn. His company suffered for it, as he was keen on promoting the people who buttered him up, rather than those who had the best talent or produced the best results for the enterprise. His company suffered for it, creatively, for many years. It went against Louis XIV’s admonishment to his son to not surround oneself with such people and that one’s best friends are those who venture to displease them for good reason.
Vince McMahon was also a womanizer and more importantly, accused of using his power as the boss of WWE to coerce the women who worked for him into providing him sexual favors in exchange for advancement. It was a similar arrangement to what Harvey Weinstein’s accusers alleged he had going on. This was what led to his stunning fall from power.
In June, allegations surfaced that Vince McMahon paid $3 million in hush money to cover up an affair with a paralegal who had “fallen on hard times.” He then supposedly passed her off to Laurinaitis (who also just got sacked from WWE). The money was seemingly his own and not the company’s, so he did not commit a crime, but the revelation led to other, older allegations emerging. Over the years, he paid $12 million to multiple women, including a $7.5 million agreement with a former on-air talent who claimed he coerced her into oral sex, and after she refused further advances, was demoted and let go in 2005. An old rape allegation also surfaced.
Yes, we have seen these public allegations fall apart many times in the past decade. The ones against Brett Kavanaugh were the most infamously fake. But these allegations were not overtly political or trying to prove a political narrative (such as in the infamous “A Rape On Campus” story years ago), which is an important consideration.
WWE’s board of directors began its investigation in April. They must have found something bad, to say the least. Vince McMahon was obviously forced out. The board probably gave him the opportunity to either go with at least some dignity remaining, or be forced out after a bitter struggle that would damage both him and the company. Fortunately, he chose the first option.
But it was still not a pleasant departure. He got no celebration, no chance to revel in his achievements, no triumphant sendoff with family and employees beaming with pride. After everything he accomplished, after all the changes he brought to his industry and indeed to American pop culture, he left with a Twitter post.
The fall of Vince McMahon reminds me of the story of Solon and King Croesus as told by Herodotus:
Croesus asked him: “Athenian guest, we’ve heard a lot about you, both in regard to your intelligence and your wanderings, how in your search for intelligence, you have traversed many lands to see them; now therefore I desire to ask you whether yet you have seen the man who is the most happy.”
“Athenian guest, have you then so cast aside our prosperous state as worth nothing, that you prefer to us even men of private station?”
And he [Solon] said: “Croesus, you are inquiring about human fortunes from one who well knows that the Deity is altogether envious and apt to disturb our lot. For in the course of long time a man may see many things which he would not desire to see, and suffer also many things which he would not desire to suffer. … Thus then, O Croesus, man is altogether a creature of accident. As for you, I perceive that you are both great in wealth and king of many men, bu what you asked me I cannot call you yet, until I learn that you have brought your life to a fair ending.” (II.30-2)
The situation also calls Cicero to mind, when he speaks of the “bitter punishment” of moral corruption in On Duties:
Here we see a common mistake of the person with a flawed character: when he sees something that appears to be advantageous, he immediately jumps at it and disconnects it from what is morally right. This is how evil-intentioned daggers, poisons and maliciously false testimonies are born. This same impulse also gives rise to larceny, fraud, defalcation while acting as a fiduciary and the shameless exploitation of allies and fellow citizens. It produces the desire for excessive wealth, for usurping power, and finally for playing lord and master over a free people. Nothing more foul or wicked can be imagined than these sorts of bad acts. Acting under the influence of flawed judgment and wishful thinking, the people who do these things see only the imagined benefits that they might get; they do not see the inevitable punishment that results. And when I say punishment, I do not mean punishment under the law, which they often evade, but instead the very bitter punishment that is a consequence of moral corruption. (III.VIII.36)
I can think of few passages which describe the trajectory of Vince McMahon as well as Herodotus’ and Cicero’s. You can win great wealth for yourself, which was Hera’s offer to Paris. You can succeed beyond your dreams in the bedroom, which was Aphrodite’s offer. You can shake up your field in ways that will never be forgotten, which was Athena’s offer. Vince McMahon had all of these things, which is truly rarefied air for a man. However, he neglected Athena’s wisdom and failed to recognize that he was just a man, subject to the laws of the universe and fortune, and as Cicero stated above, nature abhors moral corruption.
Let the fall of the greatest fight promoter of all time stand as such a lesson. He got his glory, but it will forever be marred by his fall. To achieve kleos, a truly everlasting fame and renown, you must bring your career and life to a good ending. This is the way in which virtue is the only true expediency, according to Cicero.
There are many other such character studies on virtue and fortune in Lives of the Luminaries.