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Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation
by Chris Lening

Every previous review of this I've come across has been done largely informally, on message boards or in passing conversation, and the same few points have been brought up almost every time. An acceptable overview history of the Vincent K. McMahon era of Professional Wrestling, though one seemingly unsure of just who the reader is, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is comprised largely of things anyone with a back catalogue of Wrestling Observers and some phone numbers could put together, and probably do so without so many random factual errors. But Sex, Lies, and Headlocks doesn't play out like a straight-ahead overview history would seem to; rather, it arranges the actions and conversations to establish a portrait of Vince McMahon's growth within the wrestling business. He does so not in terms of the quality of the wrestling so much as its success, and uses that route to dismiss the oft-cited "cyclical nature" of the business, instead portraying the saga of Vince McMahon as one with a definite climax, Wrestlemania 2000. Neither genius nor fool, Assael and Mooneyham establish Vince's success more through his persistence and ability to sell the successful ideas that almost always come from someone else.

Rather than simply cataloging the events from the moment he took over until the present, the book outlines key actions to suggest a change in McMahon's character over time, from a repeated failure, apparently getting by largely through nepotism, to an aggressive promoter powered to success as if by chance, to the lone man able to successfully manage a company for the long haul. The 1970s picture of Vincent J. McMahon's son, "Vinnie", is that of a man more daring than the current version, willing to operate in heavy debt as a promoter in Cape Cod, pulling out every stop to try and make an unsuccessful situation move into the black. And yet this led him to a number of huge disasters, especially the Closed-Circuit ventures with the Snake River Canyon Jump and the Ali/Inoki fight/butt-scooting exhibition. For a time, Vinnie McMahon seems to be perpetually destined for failure, only surviving due to the stature of his father. There was a distinct vibe from these sections reminiscent of the articles written about George W. Bush before the 2000 election, which portrayed him as a spectacularly failed oilman with enough of his father's connections to sneak into success with the Texas Rangers. After taking charge of the WWF, his luck seems to drastically improve, with Hulk Hogan coming back from the AWA, the USA network searching for another promotion to replace Southern Championship Wrestling's time slot, just as cable began to explode in terms of viewership, and a copromotional deal with Cyndi Lauper that led to the Rock and Wrestling era. This last bit is chronicled in so much depth, it suggests no other event launched the WWF into what it became; though Hogan is cited by many as the primary rejuvenating force, Assael suggests crowds in late 1984 had already begun to tire of him. Interestingly, Rock and Wrestling seems to be less a plan than a snowballing force, begun with Lou Albano's cameo in a music video, leading to Lauper's manager offering a stunt to endorse both parties via Lauper's interaction on WWF TV. From there, it gathers steam, boosting ratings on USA, bringing a series of specials to MTV, and eventually leading to both Wrestlemania and Saturday Night's Main Event. To his credit, McMahon is always depicted as being able to successfully push anything that works for him, and he uses the initial explosion of Rock and Wrestling to spread his product as far as it can go, building it to Wrestlemania III.

From this point, the NWA/WCW Turner group emerges out as something of the main antagonist of the book, though not really the enemy. The book uses WCW less as competition than as juxtaposition, though; McMahon's portrayal is placed next to those of the various WCW promoters and bookers. Some of them come across as creative geniuses, like Bill Watts, some as doddering fools, like Dusty Rhodes. Vince's creative energies lie somewhere in between, rarely as capable of building angles like Watts, and only recently reaching Rhodes-esque levels of Flogging the Dead Horse of Self-Pushing, which he has since reined in, albeit in favor of his daughter. The important thing, though, is that each fails, be it from creative failings, giving into excess, or just pissing off Hank Aaron. McMahon's major disasters are largely seen as overextensions, cases where there is simply so much else going on around him that the WWF suffers. Once he gets the focus back on the WWF, he seems stronger than before; the aftermath of the steroid trial particularly is seen as a moment which hardened Titan Sports: "No one could criticize their tastes and make them care." This is at once a strength and a weakness: He pushed the programming just as far as it would go soon after, but it also lead to the surreal moments of McMahon's early XFL Press Conferences, where he would essentially be talking in the role of Evil Owner of the WWF Mr. McMahon, while claiming it was not a league for pantywaists; the amazingly retarded quote about asking the cheerleaders whether they and the Quarterback did the wild thing is included in the epilogue section. He's portrayed as someone without a terribly good sense of restraint, which helps in terms of milking every cash cow dry, but doesn't help when he remains committed to a giant misfire. His own creative ideas described here are almost all disasters, from the early Closed-Circuit stunts to the WBF to pushing the Ultimate Warrior to the XFL, but he knows when to go with character ideas like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, both said to be developed by the wrestlers themselves, rather than Vince. It's reminiscent of Foley's first book, where the original draft for Mason the Mutilator seems destined for failure, but Foley's development of Mankind turned out well for everyone. WCW is not the enemy of this book; the section recounting Foley's title win airing the same time as the Finger Poke of Doom does not include the infamous "Yeah, that'll put asses in seats" quote, which is vital in every "Oooh, Bischoff's an asshole"-themed history. (As it happens, this book does mention the fact that RAW told its viewers of Hogan's title victory that night first, which led an enraged Bischoff to feed Tony Schiavone the spoiler about Foley going over the Rock. Dollars to donuts you'll never hear that part of the story on Confidential.) Rather, the biggest threat to Vince McMahon seems to be Vince himself.

Though I've done what I can to suggest the general theme, there are frequent instances where Sex, Lies, and Headlocks seems unsure of who it's aiming at. The hardcore devotee, the one with the full back catalogue of Observers, has heard this all before, albeit probably in more confusing Meltzerian sentence form, and without factual issues like suggesting Savage/Steamboat went for nearly an hour or that Party of Five aired on the WB. Furthermore, the book is not really about Wrestling in the sense of being about guys in their underpants hitting each other, but about the business of the WWF. This is why the book ends on its highest point, the days surrounding Wrestlemania 2000, and more specifically the announcement of the move to Viacom. It literally seems as though Vince McMahon has crafted a media empire from the proverbial humble beginnings in North Carolina. Wrestlemania 2000 seems like an odd choice for the peak, though: it wasn't that good a show, as anything beginning with "Godfather's in the house…Grab Yo Bitches!" tends to be. While it does finally give the odd subtitle of "The Ragin' Climax" a purpose, it reinforces a disinterest in the Qualitative End of Wrestling; Wrestlemania X-7 one year later comes across with more of an end of the era feel, six days after the last Nitro ever, drawing the biggest buyrate ever, and having a bunch of really good matches. It simply doesn't coincide with a deal the size of Viacom, or with across the board success at Titan Towers; at this point Wrestlemania served as an oasis of success in the middle of the XFL debacle. Interestingly, of the group of matches generally considered the four and five star pantheon of American Wrestling, the only ones that warrant mention, by my count, are the erroneous nod to Savage/Steamboat and the Flair vs. Steamboat and vs. Funk matches from 1989. There's an extensive section on Owen Hart's death that doesn't include mention of the Nitro Tribute match, and a listing of the Crockett dilemmas in 1987 that doesn't mention that WarGames was also there, among others. Taking it in terms of rhetorical merit, it again proves wildly uneven. Some parts simply lay out facts and let them speak for themselves, some are written like ghostwritten autobiographies, full of confusing elaboration and out of place language. The most striking example is this description of Erich Kulas's forehead, from the retelling of the Mass Transit incident: "His was a virgin skin, hard and thick." Within three sentences, though, the crowd is chanting "You Fat Fuck!" at the skin's arterial deflowering. It's a far less troubling style when the facts are simply laid out and conclusions drawn from them. It seems like the book would have made a lot more sense if released in 2001; the WWF's presence has been largely disregarded in the wake of the XFL, so essentially it seems like a general interest book on a topic most people aren't generally interested in anymore.

It seems the book aims for the reader in between, one with enough interest in wrestling to go and read about it, but not one who has previously done so. It does a fine job with this, as narrow a window though it might be, as it avoids suggesting hero or villain, which would seem a futile task anyway, given that only one man is left standing anyhow. Instead, it takes on a form resembling an extended article, a character study of an interesting man with an interesting position. Sex, Lies, and Headlocks isn't even really about the World Wrestling Federation so much as Vince McMahon himself. The cycles of the business are inconsequential, to a point: Vince may have risen and fallen at the same time as the company, but he never truly seemed stronger than the deal with Viacom, where he becomes a media player and media star all at once.

The denouement has been weird, though.

Chris Lening
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