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Let me tell you a story.
The story starts with a young enterprising promoter who had grand plans for the future of professional wrestling. The promoter starts with a successful territory and purchases it on the cheap. In a bold move, he breaks away from the establishment and starts out on a trailblazing path that would completely change professional wrestling. He builds a sprawling wrestling empire that stretches all the way to the Pacific coast and shapes the image of professional wrestling for millions of new fans.
The promoter wasn’t taken that seriously at first, especially by the old guard, but the promoter doesn’t care. He is as stubborn as he is innovative, and becomes almost a larger-than-life character, with his exploits behind the scenes becoming almost as notable as his appearances on television. Even though his overall vision is praised and he gains respect in the industry, he makes a countless number of enemies and is frequently described as “the most hated man in pro wrestling.”
Using a combination of traditional wrestling storytelling mixed with larger than life personalities and amazing backstage promos from some of the most charismatic men in the history of pro wrestling, the promoter finds tremendous success as decades go by. As the territory era draws to a close and long time promotions go out of business, in no small part because the promoter ran in their territories, the promoter only finds more success.
However, after decades in charge the promoter begins to struggle. His cantankerous attitude wears his employees thin and the once innovative mind that created a wrestling empire can’t adjust to the modern audience, and the popularity of his promotion begins to wane. Despite the fact that countless young, talented performers come into the promotion, the promoter can’t get past his preconceived notions of what wrestling needs to look like for him to be successful. Instead of pushing the young talent, he continues to rely on older stars from the past to prop up gates and doesn’t build stars for the future. As time continues to go on, the popularity of his promotion withers away to becoming a shell of its former self.
Most people probably think that I am talking about Vince McMahon, but I’m actually talking about Verne Gagne. The similarities between Gagne and McMahon are pretty striking, and while Gagne was a major wrestling star turned promoter, everything from how he broke a lot of unwritten rules in wrestling, to his relationship with his employees mirrors McMahon’s success in the business.
The key thing I want to point out is that most people probably think of Verne Gagne as the old cranky guy who ran the AWA and couldn’t adjust to the future of the industry and was rolled over by Vince McMahon, like every other promoter was. He clung on to the past, refused to make Hulk Hogan his world champion because he didn’t fit the image of who he thought his champion needed to be, and ultimately pissed away his wrestling company as the WWF with Hogan blew his business away.
That isn’t the whole story though; but unless you are an older fan who watched the AWA at its peak, or a wrestling historian, you probably only remember the end of the AWA. Gagne was tremendously successful, breaking away from the NWA in 1960 and uncovering major stars for decades, including Hogan, Nick Bockwinkel, The Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, Jesse Ventura, The Destroyer, Billy Robinson, Superstar Billy Graham, all of whom would become legit household names in the promotions stronghold cities, which by 1984 stretched from Chicago to San Francisco.
My point is that even though Gagne ended up going out of business, he is easily one of the most successful wrestling promoters in the history of the industry. Yet today he is mostly remembered as a curmudgeon who was blown away by the WWF. A massive part of that is because the winners write the history books, but another part of that is because wrestling often boils down to the key points in someone’s legacy.
Throughout the entire history of wrestling, nobody is super successful forever. Gagne was fabulously successful, and under his leadership the AWA thrived for decades, but eventually he fell out of touch with the audience and didn’t know how to adjust and create new fans. As time went by his audience eroded and eventually he went out of business.
The biggest difference between Gagne and Vince is clearly that Vince has been much more successful at his peak than Gagne, to the degree that today, with a built-in hardocre TV audience that loyally watches each week and billionaire dollar guaranteed deals, that he is never endanger of going out of business the way the AWA went, but his problems are the same.
Vince McMahon hasn’t been able to create new stars, despite a lot of young talent coming into the promotion, and he hasn’t been able to create a new generation of fans. While the scale is much larger than in the AWA, the WWE has slowly been eroding its fanbase for close to two decades now. And just like Gagne, Vince is having a hard time working with people who might be able to help him, with Paul Heyman, who while not a grand slam success since he was hired to head RAW’s creative, was at least focused on building for the future, being dismissed last week.
Like Gagne, there is no denying Vince had a tremendous creative vision at one point, and like Gagne in the late 1980s, there is a real argument that the WWE would be better off with someone else in charge of the creative aspects of the promotion. Vince McMahon is 74, he probably isn’t going to make a big philosophical change to his approach to wrestling. If anything, like Gagne he is going to dig in heels and fight the same way until the very end. While WWE isn’t going to go out of business like the AWA, it seems unlikely the company will experience a revival in popularity under the leadership of Vince. If you are worried about Vince, history tells us that you are right to be concerned.