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You da McMahon!
By SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun


Vince McMahon was never supposed to be at the helm of what has become World Wrestling Entertainment.

Back when Vince McMahon Sr. was running the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, McMahon Jr. had to plead with his father for a chance to break into the family business. After much negotiation between the two, Vince was finally allowed to promote his first event - a 1971 show in Bangor, Maine.

Oh, how far things have come since then.

McMahon is now the chairman of the board of the WWE, a multibillion-dollar corporation that emerged from the ashes of countless tiny regional promotions throughout North America to become one giant conglomerate.

An innovator in so many ways, McMahon is quite simply the man, the last man standing, when it comes to the business of wrestling.

And it almost didn't happen.

"My dad didn't want me to be in the business as a promoter, much less as a performer," McMahon said in a recent interview with The Edmonton Sun.

"I said, 'Pop, I want to be a performer' and he said, 'The hell you are.'

"I think there's no doubt my dad is looking down on me now and saying, 'What in God's name are you doing with your kids?' "

Those children - Shane and Stephanie - have stepped to the forefront of the industry, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Shane is president of digital media, Stephanie the director of television writing, while wife Linda is the WWE's CEO.

But don't for a second believe the old man is ready to step away from the spotlight.

"I'm not interested in retiring at all," said McMahon, who will make his first in-ring appearance in Edmonton tonight on the WWE's Up Close and Uncensored tour at Skyreach Centre.

"I love to do what I do. It's not work to me. There's nothing I do that I enjoy so much, so I don't know why I'd give it up. When I can't cut it, I still want us to be ahead and I'll know it's time for Stephanie and Shane to take over for me. At the same time, I feel I'm still in puberty in a lot of respects because I like to think young."

And that includes getting in the ring and mixing it up, just as he did last weekend at the Vengeance pay-per-view event in Denver, squaring off against one-legged phenom Zach Gowen, a wrestler McMahon is likely to beef with tonight.

"I had a conversation with our TV writers not that long ago. I told them that I'm turning 58 in August (on the 24th) and they said they were thinking of curtailing my on-air schedule when I reach 60. I said that was damn nice of them.

"Every time I have a match, I think it will be my last and one day it will be because I much prefer being the producer and director. I love to have my fingers in all the pots, that way I can louse up everything."

The business of wrestling - or sports entertainment as it has become known - succeeds or fails with McMahon, which is why he is forever at the forefront. He reaps the rewards of its highs, as his bank account would no doubt show, and he's the whipping boy of wrestling's passionate fans when storylines go nowhere and interest sags.

But McMahon can take the heat.

"I don't listen to critics," he declared without hesitation.

"I read the Internet for a while but there was so much bunk on there, everything was so negative, that I stopped. Those people were saying that I was doing things to put somebody down and that's not what I do. I try to boost everybody because then all of us make more money.

"These small-minded people think they know who I am. I can't change them and I'm not going to try. Those types of critics are sophomoric. I am my own worst critic. I don't think I do a lot very well. I am very self-critical."

Which is why McMahon views the downturn in wrestling's popularity seriously. He pinpointed a number of factors, including the expansion of satellite television and the Internet, for the drop in TV ratings and live-show attendance figures. But even in wrestling's heyday, McMahon admitted to never being satisfied by the numbers achieved.

There will surely be some changes yet. McMahon is convinced what worked in the past will breed more success.

"If you provide the highest production level, the fans will find you as long as you are distributed well," he said. "Yes, we are not where we want to be and we hope we'll get back there.

"We will always give the fans what they've never had before. They've seen a lot and it's up to us to create stuff they've never seen before."

McMahon has no serious threat to WWE's command of the business since he bought onetime rival World Championship Wrestling. The vicious rating war became a personal feud between McMahon and WCW owner Ted Turner, who snatched up WWE talent with overpriced contracts and character control. It was a battle that went WCW's way until the stars that Turner had lured away held down younger talent and ultimately ruined the show with egos run amok.

McMahon won the war of wills with Ted Turner and is the last man standing, with a complete monopoly.

That, McMahon believes, does not mean a cushy ride ahead.

"It brings with it an awesome sense of responsibility. I treasure what my forefathers have done and what every person has done in the business. There's a long list of performers and a short list of promoters who contributed mightily to the business and I owe each of them something.

"It's on our shoulders to keep the genre going. No one can match us in our longevity. My children will be the fourth generation and I'm sure there will be a fifth. This business has tremendous legs to it that no one can match."

The future seems to be a favourite topic for McMahon. Surprisingly, WWE's long-range outlook goes far beyond what many would expect, but it is tempered with a mindful short-term focus.

"We are looking at Wrestlemania 24 now," said McMahon, whose annual spectacle will return to its birthplace, New York, for its 20th showcase in April 2004.

"It's become a way of life. It's tough because things can change so much from the way shows are written out. Things can change the moment before a performer walks out.

"That keeps us on our toes all the time, but the big picture is always in the back of our heads. But in this business you have to be flexible. We combine so many forms - rock concert, comedy, drama, action-adventure - and we have the greatest athletes in the world. It is such a unique hybrid."

But as McMahon looks forward, there is one significant ghost from the past. While it may not haunt him quite in the same way it does loyal Canadian fans, McMahon still receives legitimate heat for his handling of the entire Bret Hart ordeal of 1998. Hart loyalists refuse to forgive McMahon for "screwing" him out of a championship title reign that Hart was about to surrender before leaving for WCW.

Hart was so furious he spit on McMahon and, after laying waste to the TV tables at ringside in Montreal, Hart knocked out McMahon backstage.

As he ventures back into the legend's former stomping grounds, McMahon faced the issue head-on, albeit from his own take on the often-volatile relationship between him and the Hitman.

"I would love to publicly bury the hatchet with Bret," McMahon said from his Titan Towers office in Connecticut.

"He was an enormous contributor to this business. I always said the only thing that would come between us would be Ted Turner's money and I was proven to be right.

"We had a falling-out. He might be bitter. I'm not - I don't hold grudges. Even if I did hold a grudge, all the indications are Bret will be back for one reason - because the audience wants it."

McMahon brought Hulk Hogan back and if there was ever a time to hold a grudge, that was it.

"We have a very checkered past, both business-wise and personally. But you can see I made a deal with him because the fans wanted Hulk Hogan back. With Bret it's different. I have always respected him and his family and I've kept a soft spot for Bret."

McMahon had no problem putting over a former Hart dungeon student, Edmonton's own Chris Benoit. Though he shied away from plugging any other talent for fear some in the WWE locker room would feel snubbed, McMahon had no qualms about touting the work ethic of the Crippler.

"There's only one name that I think on the entire roster no one could legitimately be jealous of me talking about ... Chris Benoit.

"There are few athletes in the world like him.

"He always been on the cusp on something big. He's a very unique individual. There is so much more to Benoit than the camera picks up.

"You talk with him and he is very deep. He can be moody one minute and telling jokes left and right the next.

"He is a very multi-faceted individual and in time I think that's something fans will gravitate to.

"In the proper forum, I think the fans will greatly appreciate who he is and what he represents and he will then break through."