Spy – June, 1991
By Irving Muchnick
The grim, borderline-pornographic world of professional bodybuilding – the world that gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger – has been controlled for years by two elderly brothers. Now Vince McMahon, the, uh, brains behind Hulk Hogan’s crossover stardom, is moving in on the brothers’ turf. IRVIN MUCHNICK reports on the pumped-up, steroid-fueled marketing war between the impresarios who make megabucks.
If you have remote control, a cable hookup and way too much free time, you know Vince McMahon. He’s the tuxedoed, shellac-haired, Nautilized emcee of the syndicated program “Superstars of Wrestling,” the USA network’s “Prime Time Wrestling,” and NBC’s “Saturday Night’s Main Event,” all produced under the aegis of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). McMahon’s is an uncharismatic, if he-manly, TV presence; he’s TV wrestling’s Zeppo Marx, looking on, deadpan, while Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaughter shove fingers in each other’s faces and pretend to argue. But like Bill Cosby and Merv Griffin, whose on-screen personalities are equally unpresumptuous, McMahon is actually a shrewd, tenacious businessman with a multimillion-dollar empire. TitanSports Inc., his $150-million-a-year company (and the parent company of the WWF), has a brand-new, $9 million office complex in Stamford, Connecticut, complete with state-of-the-art TV-production facilities. In addition to the cable and network shows, there are nightly live wrestling exhibitions and four-times-yearly arena extravaganzas, broadcast over pay-per-view for up to $30 a pop – WrestleMania V, staged in 1989, grossed nearly $21 million. There are WWF videocasssettes, posters, toys, apparel, a WWF Magazine, even WWF ice cream bars, molded in the images of WWF wrestlers. And there are WWF stars who have managed to cross over into more conventional realms: Rowdy Roddy Piper landed the lead in the 1988 movie “They Live”; Jesse “The Body” Ventura was last fall elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota; and Hulk Hogan has starred in both feature films (the forthcoming “Suburban Commando” and 1989’s “No Holds Barred”) and a commercial for Right Guard deodorant. Add it all up and you’ve got an entertainment conglomerate of formidable financial might.
This, apparently, is not enough for McMahon. Having expanded wrestling’s audience beyond 12-year-olds and trailer-park rowdies to include parents and condo dwellers, having outmaneuvered Ted Turner (whose World Championship Wrestling organization lags far behind the WWF in attendance, pay-per-view, and merchandising revenues), McMahon is now diversifying into *bodybuilding*. The WWF kingpin’s fetish for pumping up is evident when he and his aides gather at one of their houses to screen Turner’s pay-per-view offerings. “During unimportant matches or interviews, Vince will go into another room with a pair of dumbbells,” says a staffer. “He’ll come back all sweaty, with his shirt off and his chest and arms all pumped up. One of the guys will invariably say, ‘Vince, you look better than your wrestlers!’, and he’ll beam.”
Last year McMahon announced the formation of the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF), which would do for Berry “The Flexing Dutchman” DeMey and Troy “Top Guns” Zuccolotto what the WWF had done for Andre the Giant and Randy “Macho Man” Savage. At the inaugural press conference in January at The Plaza, McMahon introduced Tom Platz, a blond former Mr. Universe known in his prime as the Golden Eagle and now the WBF’s director of talent development. “I look forward to the day,” Platz said, “when a WBF superstar is on an airplane and a tall black man looks over and says, ‘Hey I saw you on TV last night. And that tall black man is Magic Johnson.’”
Waiting in the wings were 13 male bodybuilders, the WBF’s first signees, clad in black-and-neon-green jackets, skintight tank tops, and black boxer shorts. Tony Pearson, known as Michael With Muscles because of his resemblance to Michael Jackson, flexed for the gathered journalists and said, “*This is the nineties.* We have the opportunity to show bodybuilding is a sport and an art form.” Danny “The Giant Killer” Padilla, a mere 62 inches tall but with washboard abs, spoke about his seven brothers and sisters and his dog, Bruno. Mike Quinn, whose pectorals have the consistency of fibrocystic boulders, struck a few poses and shouted, “Get ready to rock ‘n’ roll!”
Platz promised that WBF shows would be less stiff than other bodybuilding tournaments and would pioneer the use of theatrical values – implying that other shows were too naturalistic and understated. “We’re going to take the characteristics inherent in these guys and *blow them up*,” he said. When asked if WBF contests would contain any elements of WWF-style pro wrestling, Platz, his voice firm, said, “No. The best bodies will still win. Our bodybuilders will *not* become professional wrestlers.”
At that point McMahon glared at Platz, rendering the Golden Eagle a 97-pound weakling. Platz blanched and said, “Uh, what I mean is, uh, there won’t be any body slams on the stage.”
* * *
The bodybuilding world has its own history, older than the WWF’s, and its own McMahonish control-freak impresario: Joe Weider. Weider (pronounced “weeder”), the son of a Jewish pants presser who emigrated from Poland to Montreal, has been in the muscle business since 1942, when at the age of 19 he started mimeographing and circulating a newsletter called Your Physique. Along with his brother Ben, with whom he co-founded the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) in 1946, Weider is responsible for publishing the muscle mags Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Shape, and Men’s Fitness and for the superstardom of Lou (“The Incredible Hulk”) Ferrigno and, in his pre-Hollywood days, Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Were it not for Weider’s mentoring abilities, young Arnold’s quest for fame and Hyannis Port credentials might have ended at the 1965 Junior Mr. Europe competition.)
McMahon’s formation of the WBF was tantamount to a declaration of war on the Weiders, complete with a gangland-style opening salvo. The story unfolds, appropriately, in Chicago, where, four months prior to the Plaza Hotel press conference, McMahon spent $5,000 to set up a booth at the Weiders’ Mr. Olympia competition to promote Bodybuilding Lifestyles, the WBF’s then unpublished fitness magazine. The contest proceeded as expected: Lee Haney, Schwarzenegger’s not-quite-so-bankable successor as the sultan of sinew, walked off with his record tying seventh title, worth $70,000; as usual, some fans grumbled that Lee Labrada, the runner-up, had better legs, biceps, proportion, symmetry, and posing skill. The weekend’s most interesting moment actually took place offstage, where four of the 20 bodybuilders were disqualified for failing a drug test administered by International Olympic Committee-accredited technicians. The crackdown reinforced the Weiders’ newfound scrupulousness on the steroid issue; a few months earlier the IFBB had stripped Shawn Ray of the title he’d won in Columbus, Ohio, at the Arnold Classic – yes, such a thing exists – for a similar violation.
The closing ceremonies, at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre, was vintage Weider, full of lame, self-congratulatory Elks Club chatter filtered through a horrible audio system. The audience, a 4,600-strong collection of groupies, gym rats, and girlfriends of the aforementioned, paid little attention to what was going on onstage. Each of the competition’s sponsors was allotted a few minutes to talk up its products. Tom Platz, the designated spokesman for Bodybuilding Lifestyles, said, “I have a very important announcement to make. We at TitanSports and Bodybuilding Lifestyles magazine are pleased to announce the formation of the World Bodybuilding Federation. *And we’re going to kick the IFBB’s ass!*” The audience fell silent, and leggy models in slinky black evening gowns and Bodybuilding Lifestyles sashes emerged from the wings to distribute handbills promising “bodybuilding as it was meant to be” – a code phrase, some thought, for “no drug testing.”
Vince McMahon had thoroughly upstaged the Weiders at their own event, and he still had one more trick up his sleeve: That evening, when the bodybuilding contestants returned to their rooms at the McCormick Center Hotel, they found WBF contract offers slipped under their doors. *Ba-ba-ba-BING! Ba-ba-ba-BOOM*! The war was on.
* * *
“I’m not angry – you can quote me,” says Ben Weider, sounding not at all like a wronged crime boss who has just dispatched a lieutenant to deliver a fish wrapped in newspaper. “I’m not even disappointed. But let’s put it this way: It wasn’t a very sophisticated or very honorable thing to do.” To demonstrate his lack of anger, Ben has promised lifetime suspensions from the IFBB to any bodybuilders who sign WBF contracts. “If we’d wanted to, we could have turned off Platz’s microphone or stopped his people from distributing their literature,” he says. “But what the heck, we let them have their fun.”
A stumpy, mustachioed sexagenarian with a tanned, friendly face, Ben tries hard to sound unworried: “Other federations have come and gone before. It took us a lifetime of dedication, sweat and blood, and millions of dollars of investment to get where we are. We’re a serious and – quote me – *ethical* sport.”
Identified on IFBB stationery as “Ben Weider, C.M., Ph.D.” – the C.M. for his membership in the Order of Canada, the Ph.D. for his honorary doctorate in sports science from the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama – Ben spends much of his time traveling around the world and cozying up to the dilettantes of sporting goodwill. (His oft-repeated slogan is “Bodybuilding is important for nation-building.”) He has earned his self-aggrandizing, for-profit organization shocking international legitimacy: The IFBB is now recognized by 74 national Olympic committees, has 132 member countries, and recently forged relationships with the Soviet Union and China. Three years ago he was invited to address the executive board of the International Olympic Committee. “I was given only 15 minutes to speak,” he says. “You may be sure it was hard to condense 43 years of hard work into 15 minutes!” Alas, the board was not sufficiently moved to make bodybuilding a Summer Olympics event, or even an exhibition sport; but Ben is still working to make Olympic pumping-up a reality. A true Renaissance man, he’s also a founding member of the Napoleonic Society of America and has co-authored a book, “The Murder of Napoleon,” which retails a Swedish dentist’s theory that Bonaparte was poisoned with arsenic by a member of his entourage. Jack Nicholson controls the movie rights.
If Ben Weider is the IFBB’s brains, Joe is its brawn. In 1951, when he was 27, he entered the Mr. Universe contest himself, just to prove that he practiced what he preached. Of course, he was the only contestant in the tourney’s history to compete with his legs covered by suit pants. When he started printing his first newsletter in 1942, bodybuilding as we know it didn’t exist; posing exhibitions were annexed to Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned weightlifting contests, and the dominant muscle magazines were published by the York Barbell Company. But Joe was on a mission. In 1949 he moved from Canada to New Jersey to begin his entrepreneurial career in earnest, and now he rules a company that he claims grosses nearly $200 million a year, most of it in equipment and health-food-supplement sales.
The magazines, glorified catalogs of Weider products, at first appealed primarily to consumers of gay porn; some of the early titles, like The Young Physique and Demi-Gods, plumbed this theme quite explicitly. It took four decades and the 1977 documentary “Pumping Iron” for them to achieve mainstream, supermarket-checkout-line success. In 1980, Muscle Builder, the lead magazine, became Muscle & Fitness, and cover cheesecake was added to the beefcake. (The homoerotic undertones persist, however. According to a mid-1980s study by the Northeastern University sociologist Alan Klein, between 40 and 75 percent of the pilgrims to bodybuilding’s mecca, Venice, California – home of Muscle Beach and the flagships of the Gold’s and World Gym chains – still supported their lift-all-day lifestyle through gay prostitution and other forms of hustling.)
Inside the magazines it’s an ongoing tribute to the Master Blaster, as Joe likes to be called: articles by, about, or pertaining to Joe; photographs of Joe with Schwarzenegger and George Bush, and of trophies and vitamin bottles bearing Joe’s likeness – by one count, 224 references to Joe in a single 250-page issue of Muscle & Fitness. (The group’s general-interest magazine, M&F has an international circulation of 600,000. Flex is aimed at hardcore bodybuilders. Shape is for women.) But far from a brutish authoritarian, Joe seems Captain Kangaroo-ish, almost avuncular, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a wavy pompadour. “Strive for excellence,” he writes, “exceed yourself, love your friend, speak the truth, practice fidelity, and honor your father and mother.”
Hef has its mansion; Joe and Ben have a swanky office building in Woodland Hills, California, that features a 20-foot-high waterfall on a marble wall. In the lobby is a bronze bust of the Master Blaster (Weider concedes it is actually a representation of his head atop the neck and shoulders of Robby Robinson, a veteran black bodybuilder).
Some former associates say Joe fixes his contests to suit the needs of his business empire. He practically admitted as much in 1970, when associates asked him why Schwarzenegger had won that year’s Mr. Olympia title when Sergio Oliva, a black Cuban, had clearly had the better physique. Joe smiled and said, in his clipped Quebecois-by-way-of-the-shtetl accent, “I put Sergio on the cover, I sell *x* magazines. I put Arnold on the cover, I sell *3x* magazines.”
Bodybuilding receives only a smattering of TV coverage these days, mostly on cable. Network shows like NBC’s “SportsWorld” no longer pick up the Mr. Olympia contests, largely because those tournaments are stiff and anachronistic. Rochelle Larkin, the founding editor of Bodybuilding Lifestyles (Vince McMahon dismissed her in March), says the Weiders “never grasped the significance of the fitness craze. Think about it. How many bodybuilders are well known to the general public? One – Schwarzenegger.”
“We are what we are,” Ben says. “If we wanted to make funny shows, we could make funny shows. We will not, for the sake of money, reduce bodybuilding to some kind of show business.”
Show business is in Vince McMahon’s blood. His grandfather was a boxing and wrestling promoter who started out in the 1920s. His father controlled much of the Northeast pro-wrestling circuit in the 1960s and ‘70s, when small-time promoters still divided the country into Mafia-like fiefdoms (a practice ended by the advent of cable TV and the deregulatory actions taken by the FCC). In 1982, two years before his father died, Vince bought out his stock in the WWF and began aggressively expanding operations across the country. Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports and original co-executive producer of “Saturday Night’s Main Event” – which in its six years on NBC has consistently drawn a larger audience than the show it irregularly replaces, “Saturday Night Live” – calls McMahon “the greatest promoter since P.T. Barnum.” Despite McMahon’s shaky beginnings in the field – he was behind the coast-to-coast screenings of the 1974 Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon Jump and the ’76 mixed match between Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki – he has since developed into, depending on your estimation of his intellect, either a gifted ironist with a connoisseur’s eye for camp or a schlockmeister with genuine affection for B-list celebrities.
Or both. Late in 1984 he sent a camera crew to shoot, of all things, a Ms. Magazine banquet. Cyndi Lauper, then in her music-video heyday and involved in a public shtick with wrestling personality Captain Lou Albano, received one of the magazine’s Woman-of-the-Year awards. Another award went to Geraldine Ferraro. Lauper and McMahon’s crew begged Ferraro and Gloria Steinem to film promotional shots for the WWF. Ferraro dutifully turned to the camera and said, as she’d been instructed, “Rowdy Roddy Piper, why don’t you fight like a man?” Steinem recited an old WWF catcall about how Piper’s kilts resembled a skirt. Doubtless both women thought their spectacularly undignified promos would be seen only by a few insomniacs up at 2:00 a.m. A few months later MTV aired a live broadcast of a Madison Square Garden WWF show in prime time; Ferraro’s and Steinem’s comments had been edited to give the impression they were in the crowd.
The scene at the most recent WrestleMania, which took place at the L.A. Sports Arena in March, was equally improbable. Marla Maples conducted an interview with the Nasty Boys, a bad-guy tag team, and was guest timekeeper for the main event, a showdown between Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaughter. Willie Nelson, despite his ongoing difficulties with the IRS, was on hand to sing “America the Beautiful.” George Steinbrenner debated with NBC football announcer Paul Maguire over the validity of the instant replay as a means of overturning referees’ decisions.
McMahon may have pushed his manic, low-culture sense of humor too far this time, though. WrestleMania VII had been moved at the last minute from L.A.’s Coliseum, which seats 100,000, to the Sports Arena, which seats 16,000 – advance ticket sales were slow, and the WWF had been criticized for exploiting the Gulf War. McMahon had rescripted the Sergeant Slaughter character as a Saddam Hussein sympathizer, and Hogan had been dispatched to visit U.S. military bases as a pro-America hell-raiser. McMahon tried to save face with a story about how fear of terrorism had motivated the move to the smaller, more easily guarded arena.
* * *
Even more than he relies on the allure of quasi celebrity and mock violence, McMahon relies on endocrinology. The WWF encourages the young, money-hungry dumbbells in its employ to do anything they please to their bodies. According to Superstar Billy Graham, a retired WWF champ crippled by bone and joint degeneration from steroid use, and Bruno Sammartino, who has had a falling-out with McMahon, nearly all of today’s WWF stars are “on the juice.” “I love this business, and it’s really sad to see what’s happened to it,” Sammartino says. “With all the drugs they take, the guys now are like zombies.” Wrestler Jim Hellwig – a former chiropractor and one-time Venice Beach habitue who calls himself The Ultimate Warrior – is perhaps the ultimate example of the WWF’s bigger-is-better ethic. Even though he can barely pose and mug without getting winded, Hellwig was last year given the lead in the WWF troupe when Hogan was temporarily detained by Hollywood commitments. “I eat the chemical toxins that other men fear,” the Warrior huffed and puffed in one TV interview. Dave Meltzer, wrestling columnist for The National and publisher of a newsletter called The Wrestling Observer, now refers to Hellwig as The Anabolic Warrior.
The IFBB, on the other hand, has stiffened its position against steroids. The Weiders, in their quest to get bodybuilding into the Olympics – Atlanta, 1996? – are no longer afraid to suspend or punish their star athletes, as they did Shawn Ray. “We want bodybuilders to be seen as true athletes, not chemical athletes,” Ben says. “Bodybuilding is not body destruction. Quote me.”
* * *
The IFBB also has begun to fight back against McMahon. After the Mr. Olympia debacle in Chicago, Ben Weider issued an advisory memorandum to his employees. McMahon’s bodybuilders, Ben pointed out, make as many as 50 promotional appearances a year – far fewer than pro wrestlers but grueling for bodybuilders, most of whom appear in only a handful of shows annually. If a WBF bodybuilder wins the publicized prize money at an event, it counts toward his guaranteed salary and is not necessarily paid over and above it. Furthermore, WBF bodybuilders’ percentages of earnings from licensed products, videos, and other merchandise are based on net profits rather than gross revenues.
But foremost among Ben Weider’s criticisms of McMahon is that everything he touches turns to kitsch. “The opinion of most people is that wrestling as organized by the [WWF] has been turned into a circus,” Weider writes in his memo.
To Ben and Joe’s delight, the expected mass exodus of bodybuilders from the IFBB to the WBF has not happened. It also appears that the pro-wrestling boom that made McMahon a multimillionaire in the 1980s has crested. Pay-per-view revenues for the last two WrestleManias were significantly lower than the 1989 record, and live-wrestling gates have fallen from an estimated $43 million in 1988 to around $30 million last year.
But Vince McMahon presses on. Rumors are afoot that Lou Ferrigno is about to end his 17-year association with the Weiders to sign with the WBF. McMahon is also wooing Cory Everson, a six-time Ms. Olympia married to an editor at the Weiders’ Muscle & Fitness. The WBF’s first live competition is scheduled to take place this month in Atlantic City at – naturally – the Trump Taj Mahal; another is promised for later this year, and at least four more are slated for 1992. “I’m doing this for the athletes,” McMahon has declared. “I just want to see them get a fair shake.”