On May 20, as part of the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival, author Josephine Riesman will be talking about her book on the The Unmaking of America and the Future of North Carolina panel with Gene Nichol.
It was, as announcer Brad Stutts said, “Main event time” in Winston-Salem.
Standing in front of a camera that beamed his face to monitors, tablets and smartphone screens across the internet, Stutts was holding court inside the Benton Convention Center.
Microphone in hand, the announcer gestured at a 24-foot scaffold placed beside the ring, the centerpiece for the championship match between grapplers Brad Greene, aka Brad Attitude, and his opponent Mike White at last February’s Rise to the Top, an online pay-per-view event hosted by Triad-based AML Wrestling.
Pummeling each other relentlessly with a range of weapons that included a garbage can, a metal folding chair, a kendo stick, a computer monitor, their own bodies via stage dives and yes, a toilet brush, Greene and White took many precautions to ensure they didn’t actually harm their “opponents.”
Even then, Greene slashed his stomach on a screw that jutted outward from the joists of the scaffold.
“I was gushing blood there,” Greene says. “The accidental things, the stuff you can’t control are the ones that actually get you.”
Greene’s statement represents the ultimate truth of pro wrestling. Even if the action which transpires during the matches is staged, the pain these performers inflict upon their bodies is very real. And monetarily speaking, no person has ever benefited more from the bodily harm that pro wrestlers endure over the span of their careers more than World Wrestling Entertainment owner — and North Carolina native — Vince McMahon.
According to biographer Abraham Josephine Riesman, McMahon’s WWE — which now flexes a chokehold over its industry in ways few businesses could ever hope to achieve — was built upon a disregard for human safety and bodily autonomy.
“It just churns out dead wrestlers,” Riesman says. “It’s not as bad as it used to be in a lot of ways, but it’s still a place without employer-provided health insurance and where people do drugs in order to bulk up or deal with pain.
“It’s a place where workers really have no power and are completely at the whim of the promoter,” Riesman says.
Riesman connects America’s current, post-Trump political landscape to both McMahon and pro-wrestling’s hyper masculine culture while also chronicling the many broken bodies, ruined lives, sexual assaults, deaths and cover-ups left in the wake of McMahon’s rise to power in her New York Times bestseller, Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America.
On May 20, as part of the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival, Riesman will be talking about her book on the The Unmaking of America and the Future of North Carolina panel with Gene Nichol.
Transcending the ring
The first of what is ostensibly a two-part epic, Riesman’s book chronicles the life of this highly consequential North Carolinian from his humble, and at times traumatic, childhood in Southern Pines, to a gruesome accident at the Over the Edge pay-per-view event in 1999. That is where pro wrestler Owen Hart plummeted 78 feet from the rafters of Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. onto the ring in front of a live audience.
Moments later, Hart would be declared dead of blunt force trauma at the age of 34.
McMahon, who would later accept legal responsibility for the wrestler’s death, compounded this tragedy in the moment when he continued the event as if nothing happened after Hart’s body was carried out of the arena.
Riesman believes Hart’s death was the culmination of McMahon’s career-long libertarian war against health and safety regulations as well as labor unions, which he saw as threats to WWE’s bottom line.
And in the current moment, as conservatives target transgender people and the political left as scapegoats for everything they deem wrong with this country, Riesman argues that McMahon’s career transcends the ring, presenting dire implications on American culture writ large.
“If you are a wrestling fan, you probably have a better understanding of politics in America than the average non-wrestling fan, at least today,” Riesman says. “The ‘cheat codes’ for the political universe were discovered in wrestling before they were implemented in politics.”
There might have been a moment in US history when the idea that a bunch of oiled-up grapplers throwing fake punches on TV could impact our politics would be laughable.
That time is now past as McMahon’s occasional business partner, sometimes employee, close friend and former President Donald Trump ramps for yet another run at the White House — all the while, riling up crowds with speeches that sound an awful lot like promos.
For those alien to the world of entertainment sports, a promo is often a monologue presented in the form of trash talk pro wrestlers spew on TV to get audiences pumped for an event.
“[Trump] can take you for a ride, whether you are completely against what he’s saying or you’re completely for him; he knows how to talk, especially compared to other presidents,” says Greene, who like Trump, was a former WWE employee. “He can either rile you up when he wants to, which he did, or he can get you behind him.
“He’s 100 percent a pro wrestler,” he says.
According to Riesman, Trump is such a close friend and admirer of McMahon’s that the former president would take the businessman’s phone calls to the White House privately so the two could speak candidly.
“Trump figured it out, much as Vince had decades prior, that you can profit off of people hating you,” Riesman says, noting McMahon’s willingness to take on a lewd, unscrupulous villain persona inside the ring during WWE programming.
She adds: “You can play to the crowd that loves you and the crowd that hates you and make money off of both of them.”
‘The stepchild nobody wants to talk about’
Though leaders have done almost nothing to commemorate this fact, no state has left a greater mark on the history of professional wrestling than North Carolina.
The Tarheel State would be the chosen home and final resting place of French expat turned global superstar Andre Roussimoff, aka Andre the Giant.
It also served as the homebase for countless champions and industry hall-of-famers loved by millions of fans around the world, including Ric Flair, Sergeant Slaughter, Ricky Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, brothers Jeff and Matt Hardy and Cody Rhodes among many others.
The Greensboro Coliseum has a place in the annals of pro wrestling history. That is where once-venerable pro wrestling promoter Jim Crocket launched Starcade in 1983, the entertainment sport’s first “super card” — a mega-event boasting a roster of popular grapplers from across the country at the event venue.
Nationally broadcast via closed-circuit television, Starcade would go down as pro wrestling’s very first pay-per-view event, a business model that would gross billions of dollars from pro wrestling fans (or their cajoled parents) for decades.
A Boone native who claims he first attended a Starcade event while wearing diapers, Greene says the importance pro wrestling has on his home state — and vice versa — is undeniable.
“It was very big into molding what is now a global phenomenon,” Greene says. “And it probably wouldn’t have happened if a lot of stuff in North Carolina didn’t happen.”
He points to Madison Square Garden, the famed arena in New York City that proudly touts its connection to WWE and its annual main event Wrestlemania, which McMahon launched there in 1985.
“If you go to Madison Square Garden, they’ve at least got stuff hanging out, memorabilia,” Greene says.
Noting the importance of NC cities like Greensboro and Charlotte in pro wrestling history, Greene finds it odd that neither place commemorates this fact, opting to host museum sites, respectively, for ACC college basketball and NASCAR instead.
“I guess it’s like the stepchild that nobody wants to talk about,” Greene says.
Perhaps that is why so few people are aware of NC’s greatest impact on the history of pro wrestling: the birth of native son, and stepchild, McMahon.
“He spent the first 25 years in North Carolina,” Riesman says. “And aside from like one or two stray mentions over the history of WWE programming, he has never acknowledged North Carolina.”
Within the scant interviews where McMahon acknowledges his NC roots, he portrays himself as a rowdy tough guy, a rebel and even a criminal, who fought dirty during regular scraps with US Marines stationed in the eastern part of the state. To pierce this facade, Riesman visited McMahon’s NC during the pandemic.
Meeting with Riesman at a Bojangles, former classmates of McMahon countered much of the WWE exec’s tough-guy anecdotes with the portrait of an unremarkable, albeit extraverted young man. The furthest thing from the jailbound adolescent brawler the man himself concocted.
“His North Carolina years were so spottily reported,” Riesman says. “It was basically just everyone taking his account of his childhood at face value.”
Searching for birth records, Riesman discovered that even McMahon’s name was fake, another trait he shares with most pro wrestlers. The illegitimate son of late former WWE owner (then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation, or WWWF) Vincent J. McMahon, Sr., Vince McMahon, Jr’s childhood name is Vinnie Lupton, the surname belonging to stepfather Leo Lupton, Jr.
This obfuscation of McMahon’s Southern roots extends all the way to how he speaks.
Except in rare instances when he was yelling at on-screen opponents like Stone Cold Steve Austin, McMahon completely masks his Southern drawl, adopting a patois Riesman believes the executive lifted from sportscaster Howard Cosell.
Noting that McMahon had only rekindled a relationship with his biological father during late adolescence, Riesman speculates the reason McMahon, Jr. went to extreme lengths to bury his Southern roots might have been to fit in with his rediscovered family.
“Here’s Senior, this New York and DC guy through and through, Northeastern his entire life, and all of the sudden his son shows up with some weird, shitkicking Southern accent,” Riesman says. “I’m sure that made [McMahon, Jr.] an object of mockery.”
During his stint wrestling for McMahon as part of a developmental farm league WWE ran in Florida, Greene learned the hard way that his boss’ disdain for the South extended to his employees.
“He equated that to being less than cultured as New Yorkers would be,” Greene says.
He notes that any time he cut a promo with a bit of a Southern twang in his voice, word came down from McMahon’s offices to ‘fix it.’
‘That’s how wrestlers die’
Beyond McMahon’s NC past, Riesman explored the recurring themes and ideology of McMahon — inarguably the greatest controller of American pro wrestling careers and storylines — with the same lens a critic would use for a director or auteur. In doing so, she creates the portrait of a man who saw money as a means to becoming the ultimate power, destroying smaller, regional pro wrestling companies by poaching top talent with lucrative contracts.
Even worse, once these globally beloved performers were in McMahon’s stable, he would strip them of all value via a business culture that pushed steroids, cocaine and other drugs on employees to maintain their boss’ grueling work schedules. Then, when they were of no value to McMahon, as was the case with late Canadian-born star Roderick George Toombs, aka Rowdy Roddy Piper, Riesman says they were discarded like trash.
“Roddy didn’t live to collect his Canadian pension,” Riesman says. “You think of him as dying old because he looked like shit when he died, but that’s how wrestlers die. Even if they’re young, they look like they’re a million years old.”
In addition to the grueling work schedules, pro wrestlers are among the only people to appear on our TV screens without union protections, despite the many physical dangers they face as part of their jobs.
“It’s so messed up that in this country, wrestling, which is a beloved, wonderful, intrinsically American old art form, doesn’t have a fucking union,” Riesman says.”You could just have them all be in SAG-AFTRA, because they’re performing on television every week, but they fought for loopholes that kept that from happening.”
These loopholes that McMahon fought for, which could very well be his biggest contribution to the art, involved admitting that pro wrestling was not a real competitive sport — or that it was “fake” — coining the hybrid term “entertainment sports.” This distinction bars McMahon’s employees from the regulations or industry protections afforded to both professional athletes and actors.
During his time working for WWE, Greene remembers entire months of his life with non-stop traveling and performances where he had one off-day per week, if that.
“It’s a world that nobody understands because even Major League Baseball, where people have tough schedules, they at least have an off season,” Greene says. “They at least get pampered by a corporate jet or by limos and free hotels and different stuff like that. [WWE] doesn’t do any of that, and what I just explained is the best company in wrestling.”
Wrestling and queer culture collide
Baked into McMahon’s legacy was his talent for generating heat — a pro-wrestling term for harnessing negative reactions or real-life tensions as a way of promoting his events. No promoter excelled at this more than McMahon.
Racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, Satanic panic and xenophobia are just a few of the many cards in McMahon’s rolodex of bigotries played to drum up demand for his programming. Another he wielded often to great effect was queerphobia, which is ironic according to Riesman.
“The overt text of wrestling is almost always, at least in WWE, heteronormative,” says Riesman. “But what’s interesting is the subtext is very queer and very trans. On one hand, it’s teaching you that the right way to be a boy is to be a homophobe. But at the same time, it’s sending you this coded message that you often pick up on when you’re older that it’s beautiful to express yourself, and it’s beautiful to wear bright colors and to show off your body.”
It was at the end of Riesman’s exhaustive journey to discover McMahon’s true identity that she accomplished the same for herself.
Just as allegations surfaced that McMahon had paid $12 million in hush money to silence four female employees who accused him of sexual misconduct in summer 2022, Riesman had finished the first draft of her book. She was attending Rhode Island PrideFest and noticed a kiosk selling plus-sized rainbow-mesh bodystocking.
She tried the garment on in a portable bathroom, and realized she was transgender.
“Having this revelation at Pride was having spent, at that point, more than two years inside the head of the world’s most macho man, Vince McMahon,” Riesman says. “Around the end of finishing that first draft, part of me was like, If that’s what manhood is going to be, I’d rather not be part of it.
“If that’s what it means to be a man, I don’t need to be on that team right now.”
Even before she realized she was a transwoman, Riesman was fascinated by pro wrestling’s duality of being both militantly heteronormative while simultaneously influenced and empowered, by gay and BDSM culture.
“The essence of a wrestling match is that strength is weakness,” Riesman says. “Because you can have two people who have absolutely no physical skill. And if one of them can hold the other’s finger and pretend to be bending it back, as long as the other one can show weakness and pain in their face and body, you got a wrestling match, baby!”
This intersection of normative and queer cultures is part of the reason that, as a teenage pro-wrestling fan, Riesman could watch pro wrestling events in the homes of the very same kids who bullied her at school.
“It can be a real common language, or lingua franca, for people who otherwise have very little in common,” Riesman says. “You know, I’m a trans lady anarchist, and yet this truly brought me into contact with so many people who are Trump supporters, or just simply Trump voters or who are otherwise conservative, and who might be in favor of policies that are bad for trans people.”
Despite the common ground pro wrestling gave her with bullies or ideological opponents, the overt text of its heteronormativity became impossible for Riesman to ignore at WrestleCon 2023, an annual fan convention that took place during the same weekend as WWE’s Wrestlemania 39 in Los Angeles in April.
Promoting the just-released Ringmaster, Riesman walked the autograph floor, searching for current or retired pro wrestlers to connect with her work. That’s when she noticed former WWE mega-heel Ted DiBiase, aka the Million Dollar Man, sitting at an autograph table.
“I walk over and think, That’s a guy who interacted with Vince a fair amount,” Riesman says. “I offered him the book, but he gave me a weird look and said, ‘No thank you.”
It was then that Riesman says she was accosted by another pro wrestling legend, Rick Steiner.
“Rick Steiner looks at me and asks, ‘Are you wearing a wig?,’ and I say ‘No, that’s my real hair.’”
She adds that she then leaned over, inviting Steiner to pull her hair, causing the WWE hall of famer and tag team champion to recoil in disgust.
That same day, Steiner would ultimately get banned from WrestleCon for shouting transphobic slurs across the convention floor at Gisele Shaw, a transwoman and star of the Impact Wrestling promotion based in Nashville.
“In both cases, neither of us was even interacting with him,” Riesman says. “It was super weird, but he was just proactively like, There’s a trans person, time to get angry! But who can explain the mind of a transphobe?”
And yet the minds of transphobes are becoming a major concern for Riesman.
Just as McMahon and the WWE once paraded androgynous or queer-coded “heels” (a wrestling term for villains) in arenas across America to sell pay-per-view buys, Republicans are using a similar ploy to attract voters.
As fiscal conservatives struggle to sell a majority of US citizens on a platform that ignores climate change, cuts welfare for hungry families and slashes Medicare and retirement benefits for the elderly, their current play is a desperate culture war against trans people via hateful legislation.
The legislation ranges from the asinine, such as bills that place prohibitions on drag performers — many of whom are not even trans — to openly fascistic. The latter includes laws that would restrict access to gender-affirming health treatments for trans people of any age and impose disbarment or prison sentences on medical professionals who provided them.
Even here in NC, where a 2016 “Bathroom Bill” damaged the state’s reputation and resulted in millions of dollars in lost business and national event revenues, Republicans are doubling down, introducing no less than seven anti-trans laws in 2023 alone.
What makes the situation feel especially dire for Riesman is the feeling that support for trans people among so-called ‘allies’ or progressives is receding — even within the LGBTQ+ community.
“That’s really scary when you get abandoned by the people who you once shared an acronym with,” says Riesman, citing strong or even vaguely anti-trans editorials or opinions by queer and/or “progressive” writers like Johnathan Chait, Jesse Singal, Andrew Sullivan or Katie Herzog.
“It really does feel like trans people are being offered up as an acceptable sacrifice,” Riesman says. “They just don’t care if we are dead and there are no trans people. Either they would prefer it or they wouldn’t shed a tear.”
The final count
Greene ultimately lost the championship scaffold match at the Rise to the Top event in Winston-Salem.
Acknowledging the crowds that attend his events now are much smaller than the ones who packed Greensboro Coliseum for Starcade 40 years ago — a result of McMahon’s legacy of driving regional pro wrestling promotions into the dirt — Greene says the thrill is still there.
It’s also something he can’t give up, even after being fired from McMahon’s company in 2008.
“It’s like being in the NFL and being a rock star at the same time,” Greene says.
He later adds: “I’ve tried to play golf competitively, but nothing gets me as pumped up, nothing satisfies my creative juices.”
For McMahon, now 78, the allure of his industry — which many veteran pro wrestlers describe half-pejoratively as a “sickness” — is difficult to shake as well.
After revelations he spent millions of his company’s dollars to silence sexual misconduct allegations, McMahon was pushed by his company’s board to step down and ultimately resign as CEO. Six months later, McMahon would strip control of the WWE from the same board that ousted him — including his own daughter Stephanie McMahon — and return as the company’s leader.
Inside his ring, Vince McMahon faced a myriad of foes. Outside of it, he defeated something else: His own accountability.
This is a fight Riesman says McMahon has been winning his entire life.
What makes this particular moment scary, Riesman says, is that many political leaders are looking at McMahon’s life lessons and personal business practices and applying them to the country as a whole.
“You can’t just throw virtue and truth at Mr. McMahon and expect to win,” Riesman says. “I don’t know what wins against Mr. McMahon, but it’s not that. You can fact check Mr. McMahon all you like, and it only makes him stronger.”
Joe Scott is the writer, editor and host of Downlow.d, a narrative podcast series that explores the shift in cinema culture when a bunch of angry nerds from the internet replaced print film critics during the ‘00s. For more information or to listen, visit downlowdpod.com.
Correction: The original version of this article called the book a “novel.” It is in fact, a work of nonfiction. TCB regrets the error.
Correction: The original version of this piece noted that Starcade was in launched in 1993, not 1983. That has now been corrected. TCB regrets the error.
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